Rosie DiManno: Maple Leafs need to (penalty) kill or be killed

Rosie DiManno: Maple Leafs need to (penalty) kill or be killed
Fixing what ailed the Leafs in their Game 4 loss in Toronto, I mean.

But is there enough time left to reorient by rectifying what bit the Leafs hard on Wednesday, with the opening round series now a best-of-three?

The penalty kill was a killer. Two power-play goals surrendered on just two chances. That’s an exacta. Against what was the third-best power-play unit in the league over the regular season, hardly a shocker. It actually took the Bruins all of 2:09 in man-advantage time to strike twice.

There has been at least one Bruins power-play goal in each of the four games that have gone into the books – 5-for-11 in the series. That’s a pathetic kill rate of 54.5 per cent, horrid for post-season hockey.

What’s puzzling is why the Leafs have been unable to solve a conundrum that has afflicted them in every playoff encounter over the past three years; they have a piddly 65.3 per cent success rate on the penalty kill across that post-season span.

They were better than decent while short-handed in the regular campaign — eighth in the NHL — but they were 15th out of 16 on the kill two years ago against Washington, last among playoff teams one year ago and, as of this writing, last again.

“We’ve got to fix it,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock vowed following Toronto’s 6-4 Game 4 loss, which wasted a career-first two-goal effort from Auston Matthews. A sprightly third-period rally fell just short of achieving the equalizer before Boston iced the affair with an empty-netter. A frantic concluding eight minutes couldn’t compensate for structural breakdowns that had come before.

“The bottom line is you can’t keep giving power play goals up, those are just freebies those two,” Babcock said. “Not that they didn’t make plays or anything like that, but we weren’t in the spots we were supposed to be in. In the end, you’ve got to do what you’re supposed to do and if their scheme is better, their player executes, then so be it. But you’ve got to do what you’re supposed to do.”

On Charlie McAvoy’s goal at 3:03 of the first period, which opened the scoring, Kasperi Kapanen was unable to apply any pressure on the side-to-side passes at the points and was out of position when the thrust of attack got below him on the give-and-go. Meanwhile, three Leafs found themselves on the wrong side of the slot area, allowing McAvoy plenty of space to cork the shot unmolested.

Babcock revisited his frustration with that goal during a conference call with reporters on Thursday.

“It’s just a spread power play,” he said, and one could almost hear the smack of his hand against his forehead. “It’s easy to sort out. We didn’t sort it out on the top. They ended up outnumbering us on the bottom. And we gave up an easy one. The big thing for us, we had just gone over it in the morning and we’ve got to execute on it at game time.”

Indeed, at that morning confab, the coaching staff had spent a considerable chunk of time addressing Boston’s power play and how to stifle it. So the players were well-schooled, presumably. Either the tutorial didn’t have any traction or meticulous instructions went clear out of their collective mind under Boston pressure.

With one exceptional exception in John Tavares and the further addition of Jake Muzzin, this is pretty much the same lineup – a couple of subtractions aside – that got a bellyful of the Bs last spring. Surely the teams had scouted each other to death before their playoff wrangle resumed. And just as surely the Leafs are well-versed in the Boston power play from their 14-for-21 experience of it in 2018.

It is impossible to tell, from the outside, if the structure is failing the Leafs or their inability cleaving to it. Boston coach Bruce Cassidy did reveal that his team is hip to Toronto’s penalty kill and has strategized against it. “We have a few ideas with Toronto. We’ve seen them now the last year quite a bit on the PK, so certain plays we look for.”

Predictable, in other words. Opposable.

“I think we’ve had pretty good penalty kills since I have been here,” Babcock countered when the numbers were trotted out. “Pretty good. But it isn’t good enough right now. The great thing about it is the series is not over, so we don’t have to live with that number. We can still fix it.”

Back to that whiteboard Friday morning, I guess.

Of course the Game 4 loss was not entirely attributable to Boston’s slick power play. The Tavares line was practically a non-factor on Wednesday, with Johnny T just 6-for-18 in the faceoff circle. Nikita Zaitsev had a ghastly night, on the ice for four goals against. But one might fairly ask why Babcock metes out such few penalty-killing minutes to his strongest back-end pieces — a mere 24 seconds apiece for Morgan Rielly and Muzzin. Zero PK time for either Tavares or Matthews, against a team that gave up 15 short-handed goals in the regular season. Certainly Toronto has the speed and quick break snap to turn a disadvantage into short-handed icepicks.

Four playoff games. Three where the Leafs outplayed the Bruins. Two of which the Leafs won. One which they should have won because they were, despite isolated blunders, the superior team in Game 4, marginally.

The Bruins, even with big gun David Pastrnak rousing himself from a playoff stupor — a pair of goals, a little more than two minutes apart — have looked eminently beatable. Their rearguard is slow and banged up. Tory Krug is nowhere close to 100 per cent and Patrice Bergeron (as per whispers) may be playing through an injury.

And the Leafs are no longer remotely intimidated by the bloodthirsty environs of the TD Garden, as the series winds back to Boston.
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