Petrillo: Could Matthews be developing Kessel-like disappearing habits?
TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs (optional) and Golden Knights skated at Scotiabank Arena ahead of Thursday's game.
Toronto's power play is just 2-for-27 in the last nine games, ranking 30th in the NHL in that stretch (since Oct. 15). What's wrong with the talent-rich group?
"We're talking about that every day, that's for sure," said William Nylander. "I mean, we got to dial that up."
The personnel on the top unit is similar to last season when the Leafs finished eighth in power play percentage (21.8 per cent), but there's a new assistant coach overseeing things in Paul McFarland.
"There's always an adjustment period, but Paul does a real good job," said coach Mike Babcock. "I mean, all you got to do is look at Florida last year and that job he did on the power play. So I'm not concerned about that."
With McFarland authoring the game plan, the Panthers struck on 26.8 per cent of their chances a year ago, second best in the NHL. This season, the Leafs rank 20th at 17.3 per cent.
One significant change McFarland made was flipping Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to their one-timer sides. The early returns were positive as the Leafs went 7 for 25 (28 per cent) out of the gate. But when John Tavares, who plays in the middle/bumper spot, got hurt, teams could focus more on taking away the Matthews shot and things stalled, Babcock noted previously.
Tavares returned on Tuesday and should have scored a man-advantage goal, but missed a wide-open net. The Leafs finished 0 for 4 against the Kings' 29th-ranked penalty kill, registering just three shots.
"Simplifying it can always help," said Matthews, who leads the way for the Leafs with three power-play goals. "I think those Grade-A opportunities that we found the other night versus L.A. just came off of shooting the puck, kind of spreading out their penalty kill."
"I think you'll see our power play get rolling," Babcock said. "We have a good scheme, we get good opportunity and I think over a period of time that'll work itself out."
Andreas Johnsson, the net-front presence on the top unit, believes the group has lost a bit of its swagger.
"I feel like that's one of the (areas) where if you really have confidence you really play good and if it goes a little bit worse it goes down pretty hard," Johnsson said. "Last game was a better performance for us. I feel like the only thing that was missing was to put the puck in the net."
"Scorers, that's where you get your puck touches," observed Babcock, "that’s where you get your confidence, that's where you get feeling good, and so it's an important part of the game when you're talking about the power play, for your scorers."
With Tavares returning, Nylander has shifted back to the second unit, which is quarterbacked by Tyson Barrie.
"Getting the chemistry back with the unit that you're going to play with is also big," said Nylander, who has one power-play tally.
"Our second group has good, good players on it," Babcock said, "and whoever scores is going out there next. So, it's real simple: you score, you get to go."
The Knights have the second-best penalty kill in the NHL this season (89.8 per cent) and lead the league with five shorthanded goals, so Toronto's margin for error is slim tonight.
"Up-ice pressure has been real good," said Vegas coach Gerard Gallant. "When (Reilly) Smith and those guys put pressure up ice it makes a big difference. Obviously, when your PK's good your goaltending's good and that's a big factor with it."
Smith has a pair of shorthanded goals this season.
Marc-Andre Fleury leads the NHL in shorthanded save percentage (.965).
But Fleury, who is tied for the league lead among goalies with 14 games played, is getting a rare night off in Toronto as Malcolm Subban makes his first NHL start in his hometown.
"Marc can't play every game," Gallant explained. "He's been outstanding and he's a great goalie for us, but Malcolm's from Toronto. He's played real good lately, so it's a good opportunity for him. We've got a lot of confidence in him. If you're going to go anywhere in the NHL, you need (to have) two good goaltenders and we believe we do."
Subban, who returned from an injury on Saturday in Winnipeg, is 0-1-1 on the season with an. 887 save percentage.
"We want some quality starts from him and that's why he’s playing tonight's game," said Gallant. "I'm not much of a goaltending guy, but (goalie coach) Dave Prior likes him a lot and thinks he’ll be a helluva No. 1 goalie some day ... He's a character guy."
While Fleury is off to a great start this season (9-3-1, .924 save percentage), he's struggled historically against the Leafs with an .897 career save percentage. He's lost four straight starts to Toronto, including two last season.
Subban, meanwhile, won his only previous game against the Leafs.
The Leafs and Knights both had promising campaigns come to a crushing end in Game 7 on the same day – April 23 – last season. And both are off to sluggish starts this year as they face high expectations.
"We've been okay so far," said Gallant. "I'm not trying to sound cocky with our team, we're 9-5-2, it’s a pretty good record, but I don't think we've played our best hockey by no means. Getting Nate Schmidt back last week was huge for us and (Alex) Tuch had a little setback, (but) he shouldn't be too long. When we get a full roster I like our team real good and we can throw guys over the boards and they all know their roles pretty good. So, I like our group, but we haven't played our best hockey yet."
The return of Tavares and the imminent return of Zach Hyman has Babcock feeling similarly optimistic.
"We all got to breathe a little bit," Babcock said. "Our team's doing pretty good. If I'm not mistaken, we're 3-1-1 in our last five. We seem to be getting some traction. The guys seem to be getting to know each other better and there seems to be more juice in our group, which is positive."
Projected Leafs lineup for tonight's game:
Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Moore - Tavares - Marner
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Kapanen
Timashov - Shore - Gauthier
Rielly - Ceci
Muzzin - Barrie
Dermott - Holl
Projected Leafs power-play units for tonight's game:
Marner - Tavares - Matthews
Kapanen - Kerfoot - Nylander
Lines at Knights morning skate:
Marchessault - Karlsson - Smith
Pacioretty - Stastny - Stone
Pirri- Eakin -Glass
Carrier - Nosek - Reaves
McNabb - Schmidt
Hague - Theodore
Merrill - Engelland
Nick Holden (flu) missed the Knights morning skate and his status for tonight's game is up in the air.