The last time the Pittsburgh Penguins met the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was a matchup of two of the deepest center groups in the NHL.
Since the Penguins’ 3-0 victory on Oct. 18, that dynamic has changed a bit.
Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who got off to such a brilliant start to the season, is expected to be out until the end of November with a shoulder injury.
For the Penguins, Derick Brassard will miss his fourth straight game with a lower-body injury Saturday night. Coach Mike Sullivan said Brassard is making progress but has yet to resume skating.
It’s a shame.
All that’s left is a head-to-head battle between two centers – Sidney Crosby and John Tavares – with 12 All-Star selections and 1,765 career points between them.
“Every shift, he competes,” Crosby said of Tavares. “You just have to be ready to compete when you play against him, both ends of the ice. He’s a guy who likes to get offensive-zone time and handle the puck down low. You’ve got to be quick to get out of your own zone or else he can possess it for a while there.”
With Penguins coach Mike Sullivan owning the last personnel change Saturday night, Crosby and Tavares should see plenty of each other.
There are several reasons for that. For one, the best way to keep Tavares off the scoreboard is to keep him 180 feet away from goalie Matt Murray while he defends against Crosby’s line. For another, it keeps Crosby away from the abrasive and defensively sound Nazem Kadri.
“We have so much faith in Sid and his line and his 200-foot game that we think they can play against anybody,” Sullivan said. “That’s why we choose to go power against power at times.”
Sullivan tinkered with his bottom six at morning skate Saturday. Riley Sheahan was centering Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist on the third line. Matt Cullen dropped back to the fourth line with Derek Grant and Daniel Sprong.
“We think it’s important that we keep four lines going,” Sullivan said. “We’re playing every other night here for quite a while, and we want to make sure we spread the burden of responsibility. But at the same time, we’re trying to make decisions on a short-term basis to try to win hockey games. That’s always the balance as a coaching staff.
“We believe we have the depth to play four lines. We’re just trying to settle into some combinations that we think give us the best balance that we need.”
Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.