TORONTO – The difference was as simple as special teams on this night.
The ongoing funk on penalty kill and an unusually quiet night on home ice for the power play divided the Leafs from the Bruins at the ACC in a rare Sunday night affair.
“There's a responsibility that's borne out by special teams in tonight's hockey game,” said Randy Carlyle after the 5-2 loss to Boston, which snapped a brief two-game win streak.
Combative with their top rival for much of the 60 minutes, the Leafs were ultimately undone by both special team units. Their once prideful penalty kill allowed two more power play goals – falling to fifth-worst overall – while a typically potent man advantage stood empty in four chances.
“Our PK just let us down again,” said Jay McClement after the loss. “It's a huge momentum builder for us and right now it's going the other way. It's killing our momentum.”
Up 1-0 on the Bruins after a period – on a goal from Peter Holland – the Leafs veered off the road when penalties to Carter Ashton and Carl Gunnarsson struck early in the middle frame. Boston scored twice in less than two minutes with the consecutive power plays, momentum spiraling downward in rapid order for the Leafs.
“It was bang-bang,” said Carlyle. “All of a sudden they score two goals and the life went out of our hockey club.”
The Bruins scratched out another marker at even-strength late in the period, a puck from rookie Kevan Miller squeezing through the pads of Jonathan Bernier. And though they would claw back to cut the deficit to 3-2 on McClement's first of the year, the Leafs failed to score with consecutive man advantage opportunities in the third.
“We made a few mistakes on our penalty kill and that's the difference against top teams,” said a terse Dion Phaneuf.
At equal with the Atlantic division-leading Bruins for the most part at even-strength – the shots were 32-25 in Boston's favour – the failure on special teams proved disappointing, especially in light of the daunting schedule that lays ahead. The Leafs clash with the Kings, Blues, Blackhawks and Penguins over the next week, clutching just two regulation victories in their past 17 games.
1. Penalty Killing Funk
Countering the effects of a potent Toronto power play (more below) is an increasingly ineffective penalty kill, one that surrendered two more goals to the Bruins on Sunday night. The unit, now stumbling at just 77 per cent, has allowed an astounding 13 goals over the past eight games – at least one in all eight – and two or more in five of the past 10.
“Our penalty kill is something that definitely needs work,” said Jake Gardiner, the 23-year-old leading the Leafs with over 25 minutes against the Bruins. “You've seen that in the past few games or even weeks I guess so it's something we need to work on.”
Simple mistakes were punished.
The Leafs failed to clear pucks on each of the two Boston power play goals; Dion Phaneuf moments before the first marker from Carl Soderberg, Mason Raymond shortly before the second from Torey Krug, a blast that ricocheted off the shin-pad of Gardiner.
“Those two specifically came back to haunt us,” said Carlyle.
His team has allowed a league-leading 28 power play goals this season.
2. More Penalty Kill
Carlyle slightly altered the composition of the penalty kill in the past couple games, cutting down on the minutes of the increasingly over-worked James van Riemsdyk while inserting rookie Jerry D'Amigo, a mainstay for years on the Marlies typically strong unit.
Personnel aside, the confidence of a group that finished as the league's second-best last season has simply vanished in recent weeks.
“I think when we're going really good with it – last year and then the start of this year – we had almost a swagger when we went out there,” said McClement. “We expected to kill it and we were all working together. And right now we're just making tiny little mistakes and it seems like we just can't get away with anything so we have to correct those [mistakes].”
Not helping matters much either is the amount of penalties taken. The Leafs have earned more power play opportunities than their opponent in just one of the past nine games.
3. A Little Depth
The Leafs entered the night with 83 per cent of their offence emerging from just seven different sources, but against the Bruins they finally managed to find some depth. Energizing the fourth line – and later moved up to the third unit – Peter Holland scored his second goal with the Leafs, setting up McClement with his first this season in the third.
“Obviously we've been relying on our big guys pretty much completely all year,” said McClement, who has just three points all season after posting 17 in 48 games last season. “It's huge if we can get contributions from the rest of us and take the weight off our big boys a little bit.”
4. Power Play
Right up there with goaltending, the Toronto power play has been a consistent hub of success so far this season. Though it came up empty against the Bruins, the unit still ranks third-best in the NHL through 31 games. “We work on it a lot and we focus on trying to execute cleanly,” said Cody Franson prior to the game, the 26-year-old leading the team with 11 power play points. “When you can do that it enables things to speed up a little bit and it's harder to defend as a penalty kill.”
“Just movement, lots of traffic, timely goals,” said Nazem Kadri, asked what's made it effective to date. “There's a few things that have been contributing; the way we bring the puck up the ice to set up the power play. It's definitely been working for us and one of our strengths of the year. But we've got to keep going and we've got to keep putting pucks to the net. Sometimes maybe we get a little too cute and sometimes we're just better off just looking for those bang-in rebounds around the crease.”
Especially potent on home ice – save Sunday – the Leafs have clicked on 31.9 per cent of their power plays at the ACC, tops in the league this season. Of note is the limited number of penalties drawn, just 97 on the year, seventh-fewest in the NHL.
5. Critical Areas
Harping on the need to cut down on goals against from the critical areas, Carlyle was bothered by the various locations of the Bruin markers on Sunday. “The disappointing part for us as a coaching staff is where the goals are scored from,” he said. “We have got to have better coverage in those areas. If they score them from the outside those are going to happen … It's where they're scoring the goals from is the most important thing for us to attend to right away.”
After yielding 50 shots in consecutive wins against Dallas and Ottawa, the Leafs allowed a comparatively scant 39 on Sunday night against Boston.
13 – Power play goals against the Leafs in the past eight games.
8 – Consecutive games in which the Leafs have allowed at least one power play goal.
25:21 – Ice-time for Jake Gardiner, leading the Leafs against the Bruins.
28 – Power play goals against the Leafs this season, most in the NHL.
14-19 – Jay McClement in the faceoff circle against the Bruins.
32-25 – Shots advantage for Boston at even-strength.
3 – Points for Peter Holland in nine games with the Leafs.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
“Our PK just let us down again.”
- Jay McClement, following the 5-2 loss to the Bruins.
The Leafs host the Kings at the ACC on Wednesday night.