BUFFALO – The train has all but fallen off the tracks.
The league's worst penalty killing unit has become entirely unglued, yielding another three goals to the Sabres in a 5-4 loss at First Niagara Center on Friday night. For the 10th time in 31 games the Leafs allowed two or more powerplay goals, an incredibly alarming trend for a team huddled in the midst of the playoff heap.
Optimism grew with the unit in November (82%), but has veered completely off track in December. The ailing penalty kill has allowed 11 goals in six games this month for a paltry efficiency of 58%. For comparison's sake, the top-ranked kill in New Jersey has allowed eight powerplay goals all season. What was once a disturbing secret in the closet of a strong start is now costing the Leafs critical points in the standings, three losses in the last four games to be precise; two powerplay goals from the Devils on December 6 bit back in a 3-2 overtime loss, four powerplay goals on December 9 by the Capitals determined a 4-2 loss and on Friday, three for the Sabres capped a critical interdivision loss (the two teams are tied with 35 points).
"If you get a big kill, you gain momentum and that's what we needed to do," James Reimer said, casting personal blame for the Sabres third powerplay goal, a point shot from Andrej Sekera that snuck under his right arm. "Our penalty kill; I don't know how many goals we've let in the last couple games, but it hasn't been good enough.
"We didn't get the job done on the penalty kill and I take responsibility for my part in that. Obviously your goalie has to be your best penalty killer; I don't think I made enough saves.
"At the end of the day our PK has to be better and it starts with me."
They have worked on fixing it, quite a bit actually in the last couple weeks. Practice has concluded each day with plenty of work alongside assistant coach Greg Cronin, none of which seems to have eradicated the host of mistakes made this month. Drew Stafford for example, was able to sneak into the slot untouched for the Sabres first powerplay goal. A few minutes later with the Leafs short two men, all three defenders (Dion Phaneuf, Carl Gunnarsson and Tim Connolly) rushed to Stafford with the puck on the right half-wall, leaving Tyler Ennis wide-open cross-ice for another marker.
Ron Wilson has been rightfully irked with the number of penalties his team has taken of late (26 times shorthanded in December), particularly when already killing a penalty. Of note on Friday was Phillipe Dupuis's ill-timed hi-sticking whistle, which put the Leafs down five-on-three with the score tied at two in the second period. Ennis scored (as detailed above) to put the Sabres ahead, ultimately for good.
"Well yeah it did," Wilson said, when asked if the penalty broke his team's proverbial back. "We didn't do a very good job positionally on the five-on-three, but again we've taken far too many penalties in the last two or three weeks, penalty-killers taking penalties. It doesn't really give your team a chance at that point."
Another red flag waving statistic: the Leafs have yielded six five-on-three goals, worst in the NHL.
Personnel has changed (Phil Kessel even got in on the act on Friday), attention has been paid, but at the end of the day the Leafs are not getting the job done, allowing a league-worst 33 powerplay goals to date. Playoffs will be a long shot with such ineffectiveness.
"When you get a penalty you've got to kill it," Tim Connolly said. "One mistake and it's in the back of your net; seems to be happening quite a bit to us.
"It's something we're just going to have work on. We're going to have to continue to work, day-in and day-out, keep grinding it out, get it back on the right track here."
1. What started the avalanche of penalties and powerplay goals in the second period was an ill-timed trip south by Jake Gardiner. The 21-year-old circled back with the puck behind his own goal before being stripped by Zack Kassian, who promptly fed Thomas Vanek for the Sabres second goal. "It was simple," Wilson said. "Our D started heading backward with the puck instead of advancing it. I thought we were controlling and dictating the pace of the play [when a] couple of the defencemen decided to hang onto pucks and try to slow the game down. I don't know why, but it blew up in our face." The Leafs ultimately want their defence moving pucks north into the hands of the forwards as quickly as possible.
2. Phaneuf's five-minute boarding penalty in the second earned him a game misconduct. "I didn't mean to board him," Phaneuf said of Kassian. "I went in to finish my check and the puck got caught along the boards, but like I said, I didn't mean to board him."
"I'm sure they've already reviewed it," Wilson said of the NHL, "and they'll make a decision whatever that happens to be. Dion was just finishing his check and the guy turned his back to him."
3. Nikolai Kulemin mercifully snapped a 23-game goalless drought – the longest of his career – with his third goal of the year, a penalty shot that beat Ryan Miller. "It's long time without goals," Kulemin said. "I just want to score so bad and I just try too hard maybe some games."
4. Connolly was greeted with a stream of boos in his return to Buffalo. Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff reflected on the apparent frustration with injuries that seemed to define Connolly's eight-year career in Buffalo. "I think you guys [in Toronto] got frustrated earlier in the year, from what I recall, when he was hurt," Ruff said before the game. "I think you know what you get when Tim's healthy. He's a tremendous playmaker; he can make the players [around him] better. We've known that from day one and he's proving that [in Toronto]."
Connolly played in 162 of 164 games in his first two seasons with the Sabres before missing 190 over the following six seasons with an assortment of injuries.
Added long-time teammate and current Sabre Paul Gaustad, "I try to stay away from the newspapers and TV, but his injuries were tough; that happens in athletics and sometimes when it rains it pours when it happens with that stuff."
5. Joffrey Lupul – who scored his 14th of the year in defeat – offered some interesting thoughts on the perception of a budding rivalry between the Leafs and Sabres. "Well the rivalry will pick up when our team starts winning some games and making the playoffs," Lupul said on Friday morning. "They've had a pretty good last couple years here and we haven't been in the playoffs. With the two cities being pretty close together it makes for a pretty obvious rivalry, but again we've got to start winning some games, especially in this building and the rivalry should pick up each time."