When the Pittsburgh Penguins returned from an undefeated Canadian road trip a week ago, many took it as a sign the team had its early season house in order and was ready to ascend to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Not so fast.
It was just a four-game winning streak, and now it’s been followed by a losing streak of a similar length.
Morgan Rielly scored twice, and John Tavares had a goal and an assist to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs to a dominant 5-0 victory over the Penguins on Saturday night. The Penguins have dropped three in a row.
“The reality is the NHL season is a long season. There’s lots of ups and downs,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “You win a few games, and you feel good about yourself. This league has a funny way of humbling you, and right now, I think we’ve been humbled. We didn’t deserve to win tonight. We didn’t deserve to win.”
The Maple Leafs had plenty of reasons to come out inspired Saturday night.
The last time the teams met, the Penguins won 3-0 on Oct. 18, reminding the Leafs they still have work to do to become the top dog in the conference.
They had lost four of six since, and coach Mike Babcock had been preaching about the importance of getting off to good starts.
On top of that, they had hundreds of fans in attendance at PPG Paints Arena, exponentially more than the average road team brings in.
The Penguins, conversely, found no reasons to come out inspired.
“We were lifeless,” center Matt Cullen said. “We didn’t have any spark or any fight-back.”
The Leafs took a 21-8 advantage in shot attempts in the first 15 minutes of the game and went up 1-0 on a Tavares goal.
After a scoring chance by the top line failed to materialize at one end, Tavares tipped in a Mitch Marner shot on the counter-attack at the other.
“We got beat tonight. That’s the bottom line,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “I don’t think it’s because we’re not fast enough. I think we’re more than fast enough. It’s just a matter of playing that way.”
Intermission did little to slow the Leafs. They made it 2-0 in the first minute of the second period.
An Olli Maatta pinch up the left-wing boards went awry and Phil Kessel was ineffective covering for his teammate, leading to a Patrick Marleau goal on a two-on-one.
The Penguins had a chance to get back in the game with consecutive power plays over the next five minutes, but they did little to threaten Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen.
The Leafs made it 3-0 shortly thereafter. Rielly joined a rush, skated up the left wing, got behind defensemen Jack Johnson and Chad Ruhwedel and finished off a Tavares feed.
“I think there was no emotion,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “We’re not creating like we’re used to. It’s one of games. They played well defensively, and I think we were flat. We didn’t figure out a way to win this game and make a difference.”
Rielly and Zach Hyman tacked on third-period goals, turning the game into a rout.
After winning four games in Canada by a combined score of 23-6, the Penguins have been outscored 13-5 in three games since.
“I just think our whole game starts with an attitude,” Sullivan said. “In the absence of a complete investment in the game – and it starts with attitude and emotion – it’s hard to be at your best. I didn’t think we had it tonight and we got beat by a team that was hungry.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.