BUFFALO – In about half as many games, the Toronto penalty kill has already allowed more power-play goals this season than it did all of last year.
A once dominant unit that finished second best in the league in 2013 (87.9%) has fallen to 20th overall (79.4%) after two months this winter. The group's increasing woes were highlighted on Wednesday night by a season-high three-goal outburst from the Penguins power play in an eventual 6-5 shootout loss.
"We haven't changed anything," Jay McClement told the Leaf Report on Thursday afternoon. "We're just not getting the job done. I don't know what it is, but we've gotten away from the basic things that made us successful. You can say that we've had a couple bad bounces here and there, but we're getting too many [scored] on us the last little while to say that."
Over the past 11 games – a stretch that began at the outset of November – the Leafs have allowed 13 power play goals, hovering at just 71 per cent in that span. Already this season, they've given up 20 power play goals or one more than all of last season.
The sure-fire attitude once owned by the group has gradually taken a hit.
"That's a confidence we're going to have to build back up over a big stretch of games here," said McClement, who leads the NHL in average ice-time shorthanded. "It seems like we have a couple good kills and we start to get it, start to build on it and then we give one up. [It's] something we just have to stick with and try not to lose all our confidence and get frustrated with it."
A confident bunch last season, the Leafs rarely allowed sustained opportunity for opposing power plays, typically clearing the puck and changing personnel with seamless precision. The job hasn't gone quite so smoothly so far this season, be it because of positional mistakes, failed clears, easy entries, or simple confusion. Increasingly, the unit has relied far too heavily upon its two goaltenders.
Consider that in 48 games last season, the Toronto penalty kill allowed 193 shots against; already this season, in just 25 games, the same unit has given up 182 shots.
Under increased strain, the goaltending has been good, but not quite as good as a year ago. James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have combined to post a .890 save percentage shorthanded this season, slightly worse than the .902 mark set by Reimer and Ben Scrivens last season.
"I think there's some trends that have come in," said Randy Carlyle of the penalty kill. "I think we've vacated the critical areas. I think we've won faceoffs and not cleared the puck. I think we've given up the middle of the ice too many times, gotten on the wrong side of the puck.
"Those are things that we're going to continue to try to fix because it has been a staple of our game. When those staples go away it reveals that you're not playing anywhere near where you're capable of playing."
Not helping matters either is the discipline of the group.
The Leafs have taken more minor penalties (113) than any team but the Ottawa Senators this season; up to 4.52 minors per game from 3.69 last season. A string of five straight such penalties helped propel the Penguins to come back from a 4-1 second period deficit on Wednesday night.
"When you've got a good PK," said Carl Gunnarsson, third on the team in shorthanded minutes, "you feel good going out there and you know you're going to kill it probably 80, 90 per cent of the time."
Just as the strut of the penalty kill has gradually diminished from the stronghold of last season, so too have a few key parts. Most prominently absent this year is Leo Komarov, an energetic and effective component in 2013 who returned to the KHL this season. Two additional pieces who made significant contributions, Mark Fraser and Nik Kulemin, missed nearly a month with injuries.
"I think right now when you go through a spell like we're going through, it's tough to have that attitude," McClement said. "It's just really up and down right now. I guess more downs than ups right now. I think the biggest thing is we can't lose our confidence in it. We know what we're doing works, we've just got to do it better."