TORONTO – Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs started the night with a celebration for a former captain. The spotlight ended up getting turned on a guy with the potential to be a future one.
Luke Schenn made his presence felt all over the ice Saturday and was one of the main reasons the Maple Leafs pulled out a tight 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The rookie defenceman levelled Evgeni Malkin with a big hit, held his own in a fight with Tyler Kennedy and made a nice play to help create Matt Stajan’s third-period goal. He also heard a sellout crowd chant “Luuuuke!” on a night where the team honoured Doug Gilmour’s No. 93 in a pre-game ceremony.
It was a symbolic performance from a teenager who is starting to demonstrate the kind of qualities inside the Leafs dressing room that Gilmour was once known for.
“He’s definitely got the makings of a leader,” said veteran defenceman Mike Van Ryn. “When they say he’s a future captain, he definitely is. He asked me the other day if it was OK that he spoke and I think it’s good that he does.
“He speaks at the right times and his play has been great.”
Schenn couldn’t have picked a much better time to exert himself.
His performance came just hours after the team announced that Tomas Kaberle will be out four weeks with a broken bone in his right hand. Schenn will be among the guys who will likely assume more of a workload – he spent much of Saturday’s game matching up against Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
“I don’t think the experience he had tonight he could have got in 100 games in the Western league or five games in the world (junior) championship,” said coach Ron Wilson.
The Maple Leafs appeared in control of the game with a 3-1 lead at the start of the third period. Then Crosby set off a goal-scoring spree by getting a goal 55 seconds in.
It was tied 4-4 when the puck found its way onto Jason Blake’s stick and behind goalie Mathieu Garon at 10:05 of the third period. Blake has seven goals in as many games.
The most recent one was especially important because Kennedy had put the tying goal behind Vesa Toskala a few minutes earlier for Pittsburgh. The Leafs thought Kennedy should have been ejected for coming off the bench to fight Schenn in the second period.
The NHL received a call from Toronto GM Brian Burke and is expected to review the tape.
“My opinion is that he came off the bench and initiated a fight,” said Wilson. “We’ll see what their investigation shows.”
There was plenty to enjoy on an entertaining evening dedicated to Gilmour.
Ian White, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan also scored goals for Toronto (19-23-8).
Crosby, Malkin, Kennedy and Miroslav Satan replied for the Penguins (24-22-5), who currently find themselves out of playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
They have a couple days to regroup before visiting Montreal on Tuesday night. Consistency and effort will be addressed.
“Whether it’s a team above you or below you, you still have to give yourself a chance to win,” said Crosby. “And we didn’t give ourselves the best opportunity tonight.”
Garon was making his first start since being acquired in a trade from Edmonton on Jan. 16 and surrendered a goal 5:23 into the game. He was unable to get his blocker on White’s hard backhander from the slot as Toronto took a 1-0 lead.
It wasn’t long before Satan evened the score. The Penguins winger skated up the left side and fired a shot that appeared to deflect off White’s stick before getting by Vesa Toskala at 9:03.
The second period got the home fans believing that they might see the Leafs register a rare home win.
After Antropov put Toronto ahead at 7:53, Schenn got the building rocking by forcing Malkin hard into the boards right in front of the Penguins bench. The 19-year-old then squared off with Kennedy after a scrum broke out when the play ended.
That made a statement to his teammates.
“For a young guy like that, that definitely sends a message to the room,” said Blake. “He’s ready to play every night. It’s good to see, I’m happy for him.
“I’m happy for the progress he’s made throughout the year and obviously the only thing that’s going to come is (him getting) even better. He’s definitely got a great future ahead of him.”
Notes: Crosby and Malkin have combined for 42 career points against the Maple Leafs in just 22 games. … Moore and Blake each extended their point streaks to four games. … Pavel Kubina is tops among Toronto defencemen with eight goals even though he hasn’t scored in 13 games. … Announced attendance was 19,570 – the largest crowd of the season at Air Canada Centre.