TORONTO – The Leafs will have a different look to their ailing penalty kill when the Carolina Hurricanes come to town on Tuesday night.
Just off the shelf from a 23-game absence (ankle injury), Colby Armstrong is set to see significant action on a unit that has fallen to second-worst in the league at 74.3 per cent. The Leaf penalty kill had shown gradual improvement in November (82 per cent) – following an opening month of inadequacy (71 per cent) – but has struggled to start December, never more clear than this past week when they allowed two in a 3-2 overtime loss to New Jersey and four in a 4-2 loss to Washington. It's hard to imagine a team losing two games when allowing just a single goal at even-strength, the one of course being David Clarkson's overtime winner on Tuesday.
"Sometimes you're going to have games like that," David Steckel said of Friday's loss to the Capitals. "Unfortunately we gave up four."
Generally speaking, the Leafs view Washington's four goal outburst as a blip on the radar – a few unfortunate bounces – but that's a difficult point to press when you've allowed more powerplay goals than any team in the NHL (29).
"It's not like they were going corner to corner, we were chasing our tails around," Steckel said. "We didn't block a shot from the point [on Dennis Wideman's first goal]; it grazed me and it goes by three guys and hits the post and goes in. A five-on-three goal, not saying that you should score every time, but it goes off my skate to [Nicklas Backstrom] backdoor, he's got a tap-in. That other five-on-four, we're helping out, Dion blocks a shot – we're in great position – it goes right to [Mike] Knuble who turns around and I get my stick on a puck and it goes right to [Dennis] Wideman. Boom, powerplays are over."
Bad breaks or not, Steckel knows the job didn't get done. Friday marked the ninth time in 29 games that the Leafs surrendered two powerplay goals or more, of which they've won a surprising four times (4-4-1). But consider the last two losses as proof of its potential destruction; despite allowing just one even-strength goal in two games, the Leafs picked up just a single point.
Not surprisingly, additional work was on the docket after Sunday's practice with assistant coach Greg Cronin tackling some adjustments with a group of penalty-killing forwards, including Armstrong and his partner last season, Tyler Bozak.
"We've watched a lot of video today and worked on some things after practice," Ron Wilson said. "I think it's just two games that have popped up and we've got to get back to what we were doing for a month [in November]."
"We were more aggressive than October," Steckel said, noting the shift between recent struggles and those in the opening month. "If you're going to go back and look at October tape, we were just standing there trying to block shots. At least we were aggressive in this [last game]; we made them make plays and the result was not the way we wanted it to [go]."
Wilson is ready and willing to experiment with some change up front. Steckel and Phillipe Dupuis have consistently formed the primary pairing with Tim Connolly and Joey Crabb to follow on the second unit. Armstrong was among the Leafs most effective penalty killers last season – mostly alongside Bozak – and will return to greater duty effective immediately. Bozak meanwhile, has sat in on penalty-killing meetings all year, but has been used only sparingly. Wilson is admittedly hesitant to utilize the 25-year-old because of the big minutes (17:23/game) he already logs in a front-line role with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin are being considered for further action, but have struggled in earlier stints this season.
"We're trying to figure out different pairs," Wilson said. "Armie's only played one game so it's hard to just say 'Boom, we're going to give you 17 or 18 minutes and a lot of penalty killing' so we've got to gradually break him in there.
"But they'll be some different pairs and different looks in the next game."
1. Grabovski has seven goals and 13 points in 23 games this season, just about on par with the five goals and 16 points he had at this point a year ago. The 27-year-old went on to post 24 goals and 42 points over the next 58 games, production he's looking to replicate over the coming five months. "Yeah, it's kind of bumpy start," he said, noting injuries and the birth of his second child. "I know I still have more than half a season. Just think positive, work hard and do my best on the ice."
2. One person particularly helpful to Grabovski in good times or bad is his dad, Juri. The two talk daily. "I call him always after the game to talk a little bit about hockey," Grabovski said. "He just tells me what I need to do on the ice." The senior Grabovski typically watches games online from his native Belarus, but has been in town recently for the birth of Mikhail's second child, Jaeger. Juri's latest observation? Foot speed. "He says I'm very slow," Grabovski cracked with a smile.
3. Matt Frattin played alongside Tim Connolly and Colby Armstrong against the Capitals on Friday, but looks to be back with Grabovski and Kulemin heading into Tuesday's game. Each unit requires some subtle adjustment for the rookie winger. Connolly and Armstrong rely on a cycle game down low in the offensive zone, while Grabovski and Kulemin tend to look for offence in transition with speed entering the opposing blueline. The 23-year-old Frattin has moved around quite a bit in his first pro season, a vast change from the University of North Dakota where he played consistently on a line with Brad Malone (recently recalled to the Colorado Avalanche) and Evan Trupp.
4. A broken left pinky finger has derailed Steckel's efficiency on the draw. Once atop the league in faceoffs this season, the 29-year-old has fallen to sixth overall at 57 per cent. "Unless you have 4-6 weeks without a game in the season, it's not going to get better that quick," Steckel said. Swollen and without a nail, the finger is without much feeling and a real detriment for one of the NHL's top faceoff men. Steckel is 27-64 (42 per cent) since injuring the finger in Dallas on a blocked Stephane Robidas point shot.
5. James Reimer is 0-2-1 with a 3.62 goals against average and .864 save percentage since returning a from six-week absence. The Leafs are in a catch-22 of some sorts with Reimer. The 23-year-old needs to play to regain past form, but sitting on the sidelines is Jonas Gustavsson, a winner in five of his past six starts. It's entirely justifiable to run with Reimer – the number one and most stable option – but for how long in the short-term? Disappointing in spurts, Gustavsson has looked comfortable and confident with each start, notably in New York a week ago when he stopped 30 shots in a 4-2 win.