Untimely penalties, inefficient PK, compound Leafs woes

Many question marks surround the Maple Leafs, with a victory having eluded Brian Burke’s squad after four games.

A team that was constructed with a concept of making life miserable for opponents has instead been plagued with uninspired lethargy, resulting in an 0-3-1 record to open the season.

One of many areas of the Leafs’ concern is their alarming, ineffective, penalty-kill.

Toronto finished dead last in the NHL last year, with a meager 74.7% penalty-kill rating.

Burke’s off-season additions of defencemen Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek and forward Rickard Wallin were expected to help alleviate the problem.

Through Saturday’s games, Toronto has allowed 6 goals on 13 man-advantages, for a paltry 53.8% efficiency rating; its position in the basement of the league’s 30 teams unchanged in that regard.

The mantra of toughness and pugnacity around which the new-look Leafs have been built has also come with a lack of discipline, presenting a double-edged sword. Surprisingly, Toronto’s 13 occurrences of shorthanded situations represent the fifth-fewest total in the league, through games played Saturday.

However, often the timing – not the quantity – of man-disadvantages has been the Leafs outdoing.

In the Leafs home opener in which they played well enough to win, Komisarek took a double-minor for high-sticking in the first period, leaving the door open for his former team, the Canadiens, to open the scoring on the power-play.

Late in the third period of the affair with Toronto up by a goal, the ex-Hab was serving two of his game-total 15 penalty minutes as the Habs tied the score, eventually winning in overtime.

In Saturday’s game against Pittsburgh, Toronto gave up the first two goals, but crept to within striking distance when rookie Jay Rosehill netted his first NHL goal. But any momentum from that spark was snuffed when Matt Stajan was sent off for holding. Sidney Crosby scored the first of his two power-play markers just seconds later, thwarting any hopes of a Leafs comeback.

Improvement in fending off opposing power-plays starts with the man between the pipes. “You need a save there,” said coach Ron Wilson, calling out goaltender Vesa Toskala, in reference to a screened but stoppable shot from Sergei Gonchar. “At the end of the day, that’s kind of what your penalty killing comes down to, every once in a while you need a save.”

Also, the defencemen need to be much more aggressive in clearing the traffic in front of the Leafs goal. In particular Beauchemin, who has been on the ice for 4 of the Leafs’ six power-play goals against so far, needs to return to the form that saw him rewarded with an average of 4:50 of shorthanded time on ice per game in 2008-09, the highest total of any player in the NHL last year.

Puck clearing skills will need to be upgraded if Toronto’s shorthanded efficiency is to improve. Wallin, the Leafs leading PK forward in terms of ice time, had an ample opportunity and 85 feet of width to ice the puck in one instance on Saturday, but instead fed it to the stick of Gonchar on the point, eventually leading to Crosby’s second goal.

“I’ve never done it, but we’ll have to practice clearing pucks down the ice,” grumbled Wilson after the loss.

After high expectations in Leaf Nation, the optimists who predicted a playoff berth after the team’s strong training camp are jumping off the bandwagon just as quickly.

How Toronto addresses its play while shorthanded will be a key component of any reversal of fortune.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Blue And White Beat, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

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