DALLAS - The fear is gone.
And after an atrocious start to the season, the Leafs are finally trending upwards toward respectability on the penalty-kill with an 86% mark over the last ten games (31-36). Contrast that to the first twelve games, when on seven different occasions the unit surrendered two goals, yielding a miserable overall efficiency of 69% (34-49).
"We had to stop going out there with the mindset like 'Holy crap, here comes another one, what if we get scored on"," said David Steckel, one of four primary penalty-killing forwards.
"At the beginning of the year we were almost scared to go on the PK," added Phillipe Dupuis, Steckel's partner up front. "We were like 'Alright, we're probably going to get scored on', but now we go out there, we know we can do the job and we're not going to get scored on."
Steckel and Dupuis, one and two amongst Leaf forwards in shorthanded ice-time, have slightly differing views on what's made the difference over the last few weeks .
"I think it's mostly due to the fact that we're being aggressive," Steckel told the Leaf Report. "I think as a player, honestly, you'd rather not err on the side of caution but error on the side of 'Well, I gave it my all'. If it was something physical where you lost an edge or the guy made a great play, that's great. There are too many great players in this league that are going to make great passes on a given night and goals are going to go in, but if you're sitting back and you're wondering 'Well, what if I would have went there' as opposed to [actually] going and he makes a play in reacting off that…and that was kind of what we were stuck in I think as a group. We were trying to do the right things, but yet we weren't."
Dupuis agrees that the overall aggression of the penalty-kill has improved, but also pays credit to a growing familiarity amongst the group killing penalties.
"It's a chemistry thing," he told the Leaf Report. "Once you get used to all the guys that you play with, you develop a little chemistry and it's easier to kill. So I think the beginning of the year was a little hard, but we adjusted very well and I think we're doing fine right now."
Also critically important for the Leafs has been the improved stability between the pipes; Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens have combined to post a more respectable .883 save percentage during the ten-game streak, compared with a lowly .780 percentage in the first twelve games.
Steckel's faceoff prowess has been another valued asset. The 29-year-old has taken and won more shorthanded draws than any player in the NHL this season (71) and at a 58% success rate is drastically better than any of his teammates (37%).
"It's crazy because if you win a draw right away you kill pretty much like 20-25 seconds," said Dupuis, "and that's if they go down [and] they can set up right away. If we break their breakout, we can kill at least like 40 seconds. It's a big key."
Steckel adds on the unit's general effectiveness, "Coaches have done a great job pre-scouting. It's not like we don't know what [the opposition is] doing. It's not like we don't know who's on the powerplay and what they're trying to accomplish. They do a great job scouting and telling us what we need to do. It was just up to us as players and obviously it helps when you get better goaltending too. "
Ron Wilson and the coaching staff have come to rely on four forwards for the kill; Steckel and Dupuis on the first unit, Tim Connolly and Joey Crabb to follow on the second unit. He'd like his team to cut down on the amount of penalties taken – 98 minors thus far, tied for 6th worst in the league – so as to minimize the burden on his most effective killers. "It becomes a strain for the four forwards who are killing," he said.
"We've got six, seven, eight guys who can do it, but we're relying on certain guys to get the job done and we've got to cut down on the number of penalties we're taking."
On the blue-line, Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson form the first pairing and are the most effective shorthanded with a collection of Luke Schenn, Jake Gardiner and occasionally John-Michael Liles to follow.
Despite the recent improvements, the Leafs still sit fourth from the bottom at 27th overall on the penalty-kill at 76.5%, but considering their miserable start and performance the last few seasons (28th, 30th, 30th), a string of success represents progress.
"It wasn't like we sat down and been like 'Here are all the killers', get your hand slapped," concluded Steckel. "It was more or less like as a group, take a look in the mirror."