Leafs hope struggling power play can come to life against Colorado’s struggling penalty kill

Leafs hope struggling power play can come to life against Colorado’s struggling penalty kill
With so much focus on the Leafs’ declining fortunes on the power play, it would seem the team is facing the ideal opponent. The Avalanche penalty kill, like the Leafs power play, is trending backward. One of those units should reverse a trend.

It might be as simple as finishing for the Leafs, who had 23 shots on the power play against the New York Rangers on Sunday. They were frustrated but they had to be comfortable with the number of scoring chances and their ability to make adjustments to a power play that has had little success the last two months.

“We spoke about (the power play),” forward Mitch Marner said of the team’s conversation heading into Sunday night. “We know there’s too much skill on this team, so we said be calm, let the plays come to us, don’t rush it.

“I think it was the best we’ve been, probably the most looks we’ve had all year, really,” added centre John Tavares, who had chance after chance. “Just got to capitalize on finishing. Certainly, good to get some movement, puck movement, being in sync like that, getting pucks to the net, retrieving pucks. We were sharp, just like I said, just need the end result.”

So on to Colorado, where the Avalanche have lost seven straight games, including the last three in overtime.

With a roster balance that is fragile — Colorado has 25 player contracts due to expire July 1 — the Avalanche are fighting for their playoff lives, and one reason for that is the club’s penalty kill. The unit’s performance has plunged steadily since November. It operated among the top four penalty kills in the NHL in October, but has since dipped to 27th overall. It’s current 76.9-per-cent success rate is a tick better than the low point of 75.5 per cent in mid-January.

That declining trend, along with a decline in the club’s goaltending, were likely weighing on the mind of superstar Nathan MacKinnon when he was seen in an outburst with coach Jared Bednar during a game in January.

The player-coach relationship was repaired “20 minutes after the game” and remains very strong, MacKinnon later said. But Colorado, which owns perhaps the best line in hockey, will enter the game four points out of a wild-card berth.

While the playoffs remain a priority, GM Joe Sakic has committed to rebuilding with youth; he won’t start tapping his prospect pool to make trades that could potentially strengthen his roster and its playoff hopes.

So, the Leafs have an opportunity to release some of the pressure that is on their frustrated power play.

And while the Avalanche obviously want to restore greater consistency to the penalty kill, their most important penalty killer — goalie Semyon Varlamov — is in search of improvement in his game at the same time.

Varlamov, along with backup Philip Grubauer, suffered a spell that started before Christmas and extended into mid-January, where their save percentages dipped. After a shutout against Detroit Dec. 12, Varlamov posted three straight games where his save percentage was .833 or lower. Ten of his next 14 games, up to an overtime loss to Boston Sunday, saw Varlamov’s save percentage dip below .900.

But while the Avalanche have shown pitfalls in their game, they remain an excellent skating team, with MacKinnon centring a line with Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. The trio has combined for 82 goals to date, while the remainder of the team has produced 98 goals collectively.

The Leafs realize there are no slouch teams in the NHL but in a game where both Toronto and Colorado boast speed, the Leafs can potentially force the Avalanche into taking penalties. And they are obviously overdue for some success on their power play, which has operated at about a 13 per cent success rate since early December, one of the lowest marks in the NHL over that span.

“In the end,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Sunday, “when you do good things, good things happen over time.”
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