WINNIPEG – The dawn of a new year brought with it a pretty familiar story.
The worst penalty kill in the NHL yielded two more goals as the Leafs dropped a 3-2 decision to the Jets on New Year's Eve, to conclude a winless three-game road trip.
Frustration has bubbled beyond the boiling point for the ever-struggling penalty-kill.
"How long has it [expletive] been?" David Steckel said incredulously after the game. "It's insanity is what it is."
"It's been the story all year," Luke Schenn added. "The penalty kill is the reason why we dug ourselves in this hole right now…We've been working on it, but just nothing's clicking right now so it's frustrating. Every player in the locker room is frustrated with it. It's biting us every night."
The Leafs have allowed a league-worst 41 powerplay goals, exactly 30 more than the top-ranked New Jersey Devils. More than a handful of losses have fallen on the shoulders of the trembling unit (see below).
"It's obviously tough to point the finger at right now," Schenn said of necessary improvements. "We've been working on it for a bit and going over it non-stop; meeting upon meeting and practicing it. Hopefully something's got to give here and we can get better and get on a bit of a streak with it."
December was a considerably gloomy month for the Leafs and their penalty-kill; nine losses in 13 games (4-6-3) and a mind-boggling efficiency of 64% (33-52) killing penalties.
Five Points On The Penalty Kill
1. What's become so aggravating for members of the penalty kill is a constant repetition of mistakes. Twice on Saturday, Jet point-shots deflected off Leaf bodies before either going in the net directly or off an additional stick past James Reimer. "We kicked two pucks in our own net," Ron Wilson said. "One went off Luke's knee when he should've been getting out of the way and not screening the goalie or trying to block that one. Jake essentially did the same thing; he was trying to box out and then he saw the puck coming so he reflex stuck his foot out there and he deflected it between [Reimer's] legs."
"We should know better," Wilson added. "We have some guys making the same mistakes. The screening the goalie [for example]…We're not worrying about their screeners. We're screening the goalie better than the opposition does."
2. Boosting the sagging mind-set of a struggling unit has been a considerable challenge. The struggles have become so mentally engrained that an impending sense of doom often accompanies the Leaf penalty kill onto the ice. "I think we've got to start going out there with the mentality of having no fear because it's certainly not working the way it's going," Steckel said. "I think we need to start from scratch basically and have the mentality 'Listen, we're going to go out there and do what we do and if they beat us with three or four great passes then good for them', but we can't keep doing the mentality and confidence that we have.
"It's redundant, all the time. Like when it's going to end?"
3. General hockey sense has eroded with the decline in confidence. More thinking has led to less reacting. "Once you get confidence with your PK you maybe don't analyze it as much," Keith Aulie told the Leaf Report earlier this week. "You just relax a little bit and just play and your hockey sense takes over. But right now we're analyzing it a lot and maybe doing some things that we just normally wouldn't do as a hockey player."
"That's exactly it," Steckel concurred. "You can only talk about where to be so much. Everyone plays the 1-3-1 [system] pretty much so it's not like powerplays are changing where we need to discuss about where everyone's going to be at the same time. I think it's just more so reacting, that's the bottom line."
4. Communication could also probably stand to improve. It's an asset generally lacking on young teams, but a real focal point of the coaching staff; Dion Phaneuf is usually the one constant in terms of chatter on the ice.
5. Of the Leafs nine losses this month, at least five tie themselves almost directly to the penalty kill and its inability to get the job done.
||3-2 Loss (OT)
Saturday marked the 12th time in 38 games that the PK allowed more than one goal (4-7-1)…Phil Kessel scored his 21st goal in defeat, jumping into a three-way tie for third in the NHL in that department (Steven Stamkos leads with 26)…Kessel also sits in a tie for third in points (44)…Phaneuf had two assists for his first multi-point game since November 25th. The Leaf captain sits in a tie for sixth among all defencemen in scoring with 24 points…Tyler Bozak was placed on IR before the game with an upper-body injury. He'll miss at least 7-10 days…Tim Connolly moved up to play with Kessel and Joffrey Lupul in Bozak's place, recording an assist on the Kessel goal…Matthew Lombardi logged 10:57 in his first game since November 17, generally staying away from the faceoff circle (just three attempts). Lombardi missed 18 games with a shoulder injury, removed off IR on Saturday afternoon…Clarke MacArthur scored his 11th goal of the year, extending his point streak to five games (two goals, four assists)…Kessel attempted eight shots with only one (his goal) hitting the net…A native of Manitoba, Reimer made 32 saves, but dropped to 1-4-1 on the road.