For the Maple Leafs to beat the likes of Sidney Crosby, they must psyche themselves like Sidney Crosby.

That was the message coach Randy Carlyle was pumping to his under-manned team before they met the NHL’s leading scorer, along with the equally dangerous Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.

Staff and players were on the same page in the 4-1 win, as the Leafs blanked Crosby and held Malkin to a power-play assist. That comes after three games where the Leafs faced a stable of stars — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Marian Gaborik, with only Gaborik earning a point.

“As always, great players are great challenges,” Carlyle said. “(Crosby) has tendencies he likes to do, but he finds a way to overcome a lot of the defensive systems that he competes against. He takes it as a personal challenge. That’s what we have to do as a team, challenge ourselves to limit the time and space and be very aware of where and when he’s on the ice.”

That task fell mostly to defencemen Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson. Crosby and Malkin ended the night a combined minus-5, accounting for five of the 38 Pittsburgh shots on a sharp James Reimer.

“It’s well-known to us that he plays against the top players on every team that we face,” Carlyle said of his captain Phaneuf. “They are tough minutes for him to accumulate. We think he does a heck of a job for our club or else we wouldn’t be using him in those situations.”

Few players are adored more than Crosby in the hockey world, while few Leafs have been judged as harshly in Toronto and elsewhere as the highly paid Phaneuf.

“I know that there seems to be a love-hate type of relationship at certain times,” Carlyle said. “But there’s a lot of love shown from our part, the coaching staff.”

Afterward, Phaneuf didn’t get too much into his sometimes chippy duels with Crosby, except to say, “He likes to play the game hard and so do I ... I played against him a long time and I have a lot of respect for him.”

The Leafs improved their record to 8-4 and gained first place in the conference, having started the day tied with the Pens and Boston Bruins, who lost to the Devils. The Leafs also start a Western Canadian road trip on the right note.

Nazem Kadri, subbing for an injured Tyler Bozak as first-line centre, had the winner early in the third on a Phil Kessel pass, while Kessel buried his fifth in the past three games, sandwiched around a first-period Dave Bolland shortie and his empty netter.