ST. PAUL, Minn – The clock lingered for what seemed like an interminable two minutes and 51 seconds before Mark Fraser finally escaped to the bench during a wildly one-sided first period of an eventual loss to Boston.
"I couldn't believe when I heard after the game that's how long it was," said Fraser, in conversation with the Leaf Report, minutes before the team departed for Minnesota. "It actually didn't feel that long because that seems so unfathomable. None of us were able to move."
He and his teammates would later sustain a similar bit of pressure themselves, hammering the Bruins with wave upon wave of pressure in a second period that was arguably their best this season. It was that style, that relentlessness, that enthusiasm that Randy Carlyle would like to see from his team on a more consistent basis.
"I just think that the good teams in the league, they have a template and they play to it," said Carlyle, ahead of a Wednesday date with the thriving Wild. "They put the puck in and go to work. And we have to gain more of that type of an attitude from our group. That's what's necessary to have success in the NHL and you have to do it day in, day out."
Despite an 11-6-0 record that ranks third in the Atlantic Division, the Leafs have, to this point, only seen hints of the team they would like to resemble this season. They've not managed to impose the edge, force or speed which defined their attack with surprising success last season.
Carlyle has harped often on the need for that to change.
Bits of improvement were seen in a 2-1 shootout win over New Jersey last week, further signs of hope emerging in the loss to the Bruins over the weekend.
"I think that we've been preaching that for a long time," said Carlyle. "There is an understanding that we have to play a certain way. And when you see signs of it happening, that's encouraging but it's got to happen more often and that's what we're going to ask of them."
What Carlyle is looking for specifically is improvement at even strength. Though they boast a positive goal differential – because of terrific goaltending – the Leafs have only managed 29 goals in five-on-five situations, which ranks 20th this season.
In the past three games, they've scored only once at even strength.
More alarmingly, they've been outshot by a margin of 455-322 in such situations; attempting the fewest shots of any team in the league (611) while yielding the seventh most against (850), as per extraskater.com.
"We need to be a better five-on-five team," said Fraser. "So far, our specialty teams have been pretty good for us, but it'd be nicer to win more games in the five-on-five play and not have to rely on those which won't always be there for you."
A source of much of the club's success – in addition to goaltending – Toronto special teams, dominant in the very early stages this season, have predictably cooled in recent days.
Now ranked 13th overall, the penalty kill allowed a pair for the first time all season against the Bruins, the power-play empty in three opportunities and now 1-15 over the past five games.
|Special Teams||Last 5 Games||First 11 Games|
|Power play||1-15 – 7%||12-45 – 27%|
|Penalty kill||17-21 – 81%||40-47 – 85%|
What the Leafs did so well amid an impressive and yet all too rare stretch of 20 minutes at TD Garden on Saturday was pressure and pressure with persistence and grit. They outshot the Bruins 18-8 at even strength in the period, scoring their lone goal in an eventual 3-1 defeat.
"The first thing we did is we dumped the puck effectively and we were able to get it back off our forecheck," said Carlyle. "And then we moved off the puck; we moved the puck and moved ourselves. Those are the things that are easy to talk about, but sometimes they're a lot harder to duplicate."
A tactic they employed with success against Boston in the playoffs last May, the Leafs used their speed and tenacity to wear down the Bruins defence. As a result, they sustained possession deep in the offensive zone while fatiguing their opponent.
"Once we had them hemmed in, it was to the point where we weren't allowing them to change," Fraser said of the game on Saturday.
Hardly in line with the preference of the coaching staff, most of the club's offence at even strength this season has relied on quick strikes and marksman-like accuracy (the Leafs boast the fourth-best shooting percentage as per extraskater.com). Only in very small doses has the club sustained possession and pressure in the opposition end. Often careless with the puck, they've often spent far more time defending than attacking. Notably, the Leafs have yielded more shots than anyone but the Ottawa Senators (36.5 per game).
"It hasn't changed in our minds," said Fraser of the desired template, "but perhaps just in our execution of it."
The challenge has been demanding and attaining such execution while the team continues to win in manners that are unlikely to be sustained. It's for that reason that Carlyle has preached for improvement all year long, even when the wins piled up early.
"We've been recognizing it perhaps a bit more and just collectively trying to get back to where we were, which was a hard-working team that was initiating our style instead of receiving the other team's [style]," Fraser said.
"It's hard to know when you're kind of sneaking away some victories."