Leafs respond after back-to-back poor showings with 4-0 victory over Penguins

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TORONTO — After two listless, disheartening performances, Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe wanted to see “signs of life” from his team.

It’s only one game, but Toronto delivered.

Jake Muzzin had a goal and two assists, Frederik Andersen made 24 saves for his second shutout of the season, and the Leafs beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-0 on Thursday night.

William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen and Zach Hyman also scored for Toronto (32-22-8), which was embarrassed 5-2 in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. John Tavares added two assists for the Leafs, who moved back into third place in the Atlantic Division.

Matt Murray made 26 stops for Pittsburgh (37-16-6), which suffered its most lopsided loss of the season.

Toronto was coming off back-to-back road losses — an ugly 5-2 setback Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres and that shocking defeat in Pittsburgh where the Penguins toyed with the Leafs in building a 5-0 lead just past the midway point of the second period.

Following a scoreless first Thursday, a vast improvement compared to Tuesday’s 2-0 deficit, the Leafs pushed in front at 7:45 of the second when Muzzin’s point shot pinged off the post and in with newly-acquired Denis Malgin providing traffic in front of Murray.

The defenceman celebrated his fifth goal of the campaign by high-fiving jubilant backup goalie Jack Campbell on the bench before being congratulated by the rest of his teammates.

Toronto got a 5-on-3 power play for 1:53 midway through the second — deploying five forwards for the second straight game — and cracked the Penguins’ penalty kill when Nylander took a feed from Matthews and beat Murray through the pads for his 27th at 10:01 after Tavares won the offensive zone draw.

Kapanen then made it 3-0 with his 12th at 13:04 when he was sprung by Alexander Kerfoot and fired past Murray’s blocker.

The Leafs spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning answering questions about their work ethic and level of urgency in a season that could be slipping away, but showed plenty of pushback on this night — and not only between the whistles.

Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist took a couple of runs at Leafs rookie defenceman Rasmus Sandin late in the second. Kapanen intervened and got a cross-check up high for his troubles before dropping the gloves with Pittsburgh’s Jared McCann.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Tavares, his Toronto counterpart, jawed at each other after a scrum that saw Hornqvist land on Andersen, and the two continued the conversation as the teams headed off for the second intermission.

Hyman put things out of reach at 3:56 of the third when he collected his own rebound off a deflection and slid home his 19th in just his 43rd game of 2019-20 after missing the first 19 game following off-season knee surgery.

Having struggled mightily for most of 2020, Andersen held the fort the rest of the way as the Leafs closed defensive ranks around their goalie to help him pick up the 18th shutout of his career.

The Leafs, who woke up Thursday out of the playoffs with 21 games left on the schedule, came in 7-8-3 over their last 18 — with just four 60-minute victories over that span — following a 15-4-1 start to Keefe’s tenure after he replaced Mike Babcock on Nov. 20.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is in a battle with the Washington Capitals atop the Metropolitan Division.

Andersen, who came in with an .871 save percentage dating back to Jan. 6 and was 0-3-0 since returning from a neck injury that cost him four games, made 14 stops in the opening period, including five on a late power play for the Leafs’ first successful kill against Pittsburgh in five attempts in 2019-20.

Murray didn’t have a lot to do at the other end early, but was sharp on an Kerfoot redirection as Toronto provided an improved forecheck following those dismal road performances.

Notes: The Penguins were a perfect 3 for 3 on the power play on Tuesday. … Malgin, acquired by Toronto in a trade with Florida on Wednesday, skated on a line with Tavares and Nylander. … The Leafs host Carolina on Saturday, while Pittsburgh is home to Buffalo.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press