Zach Hyman’s line was tasked with going up against Sidney Crosby.
Chipping in on the scoreboard was an added bonus.
The gritty Maple Leafs winger bagged the winner and Garret Sparks made 28 saves as Toronto fought back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 on Saturday.
“We just kept working,” Hyman said of his team’s response after falling behind. “We were playing well and stuck with it.”
Travis Dermott, with a goal and an assist, and Auston Matthews also scored for Toronto (31-17-3). Jake Gardiner added two assists.
Crosby and Teddy Blueger replied for Pittsburgh (28-18-6), which was minus Evgeni Malkin for a second straight night because of an upper-body injury. Matt Murray stopped 30 shots.
“They generated both off the rush and within the zone,” said Crosby, who scored on the power play in the first period. “We probably didn’t do as good a job in their end holding onto pucks and creating momentum.”
Both the Leafs and Penguins were playing their second game in as many nights — Toronto lost 3-2 in overtime on the road Friday against Detroit, while Pittsburgh topped Ottawa 5-3 at home.
“These games are tough, playing a back-to-back against a good team,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “Down two early, to come back and win, hold the lead in the third … it’s a good character win.”
Toronto, which entered 4-7-1 over its last 12, went ahead with 3:54 left in the second on a slick play by Rielly and Mitch Marner.
The two Leafs worked a give-and-go along the boards before Rielly fired a shot that rebounded to Hyman, who outmuscled Kris Letang and had the presence of mind to kick the puck up to his stick as he fell to the ice and bury his ninth goal of the season.
Rielly’s assist was his 52nd point of the season, tying the career-high he set in 2017-18.
Asked how he, Marner and Tavares managed to neutralize Crosby at 5 on 5, Hyman said the formula is simple
“Don’t turn (the puck) over,” he said. “We did a good job not turning it over, staying above them.”
Winners of two straight after losing four of their previous five, the Penguins nearly got that one right back, but Sparks stopped a Patric Hornqvist deflection and Tanner Pearson with his glove to send Toronto into the intermission up 3-2.
Patrick Marleau had two chances to give Toronto a two-goal lead in the third, but Murray was there both times, including with the pad on a great solo rush by the veteran winger.
Pittsburgh pulled the goalie with 1:30 remaining and had offensive zone faceoff with 28.4 seconds left when Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev just missed the empty net on a shot that went for icing before Marner hit the post, but the home side managed to hang on.
“They were just harder at our net,” Murray said. “Their goals were scored with traffic and tips and rebounds.”
Down 2-1 after the first, Toronto tied it at 9:36 of the second when Marleau won a faceoff against a tired Crosby following an icing to Gardiner, who in turn fed Dermott for a one-timer that found its way through a screen for his fourth.
Sparks got the start in place of No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen in the second game of a back-to-back and made a couple of nice stops earlier in the period to keep his team within one.
Coming off a nine-day break that stretched across the NHL’s all-star weekend and their bye week, the Leafs were slow out of the gate Friday.
It was more of the same 24 hours later as the Penguins grabbed that early advantage.
Crosby blasted a one-timer past Sparks on a man advantage at 10:01 of the first for his 23rd. Blueger, who scored his first NHL goal in his second-career game Friday, then fired another shot beyond the glove of Sparks with 6:40 left in the period.
Pittsburgh nearly made it 3-0 moments later, but Sparks stopped Letang before Nazem Kadri desperately cleared a loose puck on another shot off the post from the crease with his skate.
“When it got 2-0 and they’ve blown two by you, it’s easy to get a little bit rattled,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “I didn’t think (Sparks) did at all.”
Toronto got on the board at 17:25 of the period when Matthews deftly tucked his 23rd short side after Murray couldn’t handle Dermott’s fluttering one-timer.
Jake Muzzin made his home debut for the Leafs after Monday’s trade with Los Angeles for two prospects and a 2019 first-round draft pick. The big defenceman got a nice round of applause during player introductions and had the crowd at Scotiabank Arena buzzing six minutes in when he laid out Penguins winger Jake Guentzel with a big hit along the boards.
“We seemed to have our legs,” Matthews said. “That’s a key for us, playing fast and not giving them space.”