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Siegel: Kulemin fighting demons of goal drought

Jonas Siegel
11/26/2011 2:18:23 AM
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DALLAS – Tyler Bozak overheard the conversation and couldn't help but chime in.

"Guilty," he said. "Me too," added Clarke MacArthur. "Guilty."

Dry spells of lengthy proportion are a common nightmare for goal-scorers.

The longest drought of Nikolai Kulemin's career extended to 16 games in Dallas on Friday night. Kulemin had two shots on goal, but failed to score yet again.  He has been without a goal since October 22nd.

"I think everyone's been through those stretches," MacArthur told the Leaf Report, prior to a 4-3 shootout win over the Stars. "It's one of those things you just hope it happens soon. It's a tough thing for him. You just hope he gets a break around the net [where] he can tap one in and relieve some of the pressure. But he's doing a good job in the other areas, he's making plays, he's still keeping up that part of his game. The scoring will come I'm sure."

MacArthur remembered with horror the events of his Buffalo days in the 2008-2009 season. What concluded as a respectable 17-goal campaign was not without misfortune; MacArthur had one 17-game drought, followed by a 20-gamer later in the year.

"He don't tell me about it," Kulemin said smiling. "Maybe I'll ask him how he break it that time (laughs)."

The challenge during the wasteland of a goal drought, as MacArthur explained it, is to remember what you've done effectively rather than streamline all your focus toward the missing offence. In Kulemin's case, that's an intense forecheck, a physical presence and strong defensive game.

"You've got to remind yourself," MacArthur said. "It is easy to forget all the good things you're doing. Every game's a disappointment because you didn't score and that's all you want to do. I think he handles it pretty good, better than most guys would."

"I have to think before a game what you're supposed to do," Kulemin concurred, "what you're doing before to score, like shoot quick. Don't think about scoring, that's the problem."

Assistant coach Scott Gordon offered similar advice to Kulemin earlier in the week during a conversation the two had at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.

"He said you're doing well and you try hard all the time," Kulemin explained. "I can't say you don't try [he said], but it's not going in. Just keep doing [the] same [things] and relax a little bit."

It's not as if Kulemin has played poorly this season. He remains the Leafs most effective forechecker, is a continuous physical presence and a reliable entity in the defensive zone (despite a minus-4 rating). On Friday, he chipped in with an assist for the second consecutive game, outmuscling Nicklas Grossman for a puck in the corner, before Tim Connolly fed MacArthur for a goal in front.

Kulemin scored 30 goals last season on a mere 173 shots, the second best shooting percentage amongst players with 30 or more (Sidney Crosby was 1st). Over the latter stages of November, he has begun to shoot the puck more – 14 over the last six games – one of the more obvious remedies for breaking out from under a slump.

"Just keep shooting," MacArthur concluded. "And then he'll score one and he'll score for six, seven games in a row."

Five Points

1. Jonas Gustavsson won his third consecutive start (.949 save percentage) making 26 saves in the win over Dallas, stopping all three Stars in the shootout. "He hasn't looked nervous," Ron Wilson said of Gustavsson's three-game win streak. "He's settled down and obviously his confidence is growing with the starts too." "You're always trying to go out there and play calm and simple, trying to make saves when we need them," Gustavsson added. The 26-year-old last won three consecutive starts as a rookie in 2009-2010, when he emerged victorious in seven straight down the stretch in March. "Yeah of course they feel the same because we're winning," he told the Leaf Report. "It's three games, it's not like it's ten games. You can't really feel too satisfied with that."

2. Special teams loomed large again on Friday. The Leaf powerplay scored for the sixth consecutive game with Dion Phaneuf adding his first goal in 15 games in the first frame. The penalty kill meanwhile, emerged perfect in four opportunities – even without primary killers David Steckel and Carl Gunnarsson for much of the game – improving to 88% over the last eleven games (35-40) and 77.5% on the season. "I thought we did a really good job on both parts of special teams," Phaneuf said. "Those are big momentum shifts in games when your PK can kill off a penalty and your PP can generate some momentum."

3. Luke Schenn played "easily his best game of the season" according to Wilson, totaling a season-high 27 minutes with six hits and two blocked shots. Physicality has grown back into the fourth-year defenceman's game after a topsy-turvy start to the season. The 22-year-old delivered a punishing hit to Tomas Vincour in the third period. "That's when I feel most comfortable out there and most involved is when I play physical," Schenn said. Friday marked just the third time this season that Schenn has logged over 20 minutes. Last season, he hit the 20-minute mark in 70 of 82 games.

4. Steckel and Gunnarsson both left Friday's game with left hand injuries in the second period. Steckel blocked a Stephane Robidas point shot and was seen with a bandage on his pinky finger, while Gunnarsson took a Sheldon Souray bomb off the hand, departing to the dressing room moments later. "They both got shots in I guess you'd say the fingers and they couldn't finish the game," Wilson said, offering no further update on their status heading into Sunday's game in Anaheim. The loss of either player for any length of time would be a significant blow. Steckel is far and away the team's best faceoff man and top penalty-killing forward, while Gunnarsson logs heavy minutes on the first pairing with Dion Phaneuf.

5. Phaneuf continued a red-hot finish to the month of November. The Leafs captain had a goal and an assist against the Stars, giving him six points in the last four games after a nine-game stretch in which he registered just a single point. He also jumped into a three-way tie for second amongst all defencemen in points (18).

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