Leafs show courage under fire

LANCE HORNBY, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:35 PM ET

The firing squad was assembled and Ron Wilson was not about to offer the condemned men a cigarette or blindfold.

If some Maple Leafs aren’t showing the courage to stand in front of the net to dig for goals in a game, then Wilson was going to convince them the hard way in practice, stationing them right in the shooting gallery.

A barrage of pucks came whistling in at groin level or higher, with the challenge to either tip them and go after rebounds or suffer the consequences. A few wincing players skated away flicking their arms and hands or shaking their legs to rid themselves of the sting of their failed attempts.

It was a painful lesson, but one that Wilson and his staff thought was needed after 42 shots and six power plays on Tuesday against the Florida Panthers produced one goal. But it’s a problem that goes back much further, with the Leafs on pace for about 216 goals. That would be the second lowest since 1997-98, despite their winning ways in seven of their past 10.

“We have a few guys who are fairly good at it and get better and a few guys who are not very good at all,” coach Wilson said Wednesday, as his bruised team departed the MasterCard Centre for a flight to Atlanta. “And the only way they will learn is by doing this in practice.”

Smaller centres such as Tyler Bozak have needed to be more proactive in making life harder for opposition goalies, but it speaks to the greater problem of lack of size down the middle for Toronto. Wayne Primeau, about the biggest centre the Leafs have in terms of height and weight, is a fourth-liner who hasn’t even dressed regularly. Colton Orr is a 222 pounds, but has five career goals in 300 games.

“We’ve got some big bodies, but not a lot, and we’ve got some players who struggle to score on direct shots,” Wilson said, before bringing up some of his favourite crease miscreants on the Detroit Red Wings. “I’ve hardly ever seen Tomas Holmstrom score a goal on a direct shot and he has had a great career. Johan Franzen has great hands and scores some beautiful goals, but he probably scores 10 having it go off his stick or a part of his body. Or the player shooting beats the goalie clean because (Holmstrom and Franzen make sure) he never saw the puck.

“If we’re going to get our defencemen committed to getting shots through (another power-play difficulty for the Leafs), we’ll need some more traffic.”

The Leafs have just four power-play goals in 13 games, three of those coming in one night against the 30th-placed Edmonton Oilers. Most of the Leafs said they were guilty as charged of wilting near the blue paint.

“Every so often you see a guy take a puck in the face, the foot or the hand,” winger Christian Hanson said. “You’re taught that at a young age, but if you don’t use it, sometimes you forget it.”

“We knew where to go, we just didn’t get there last night,” forward John Mitchell said. “If you’re going to go to the dirty areas, you’re going to get pucks deflecting off your fingers, your feet and you might not even deflect them and take a slapper off your ankle or leg. You’ll get the bruises, but it all comes with the territory.”

One-piece sticks make shots harder these days, but Wilson felt advances in protective equipment have kept pace.

“You know there’s going to be a little pain involved from a slap shot,” Wilson said, “but they’re designing a lot of new things such as foot guards (that fit over most the skate boot) and there’s no reason forwards shouldn’t (wear them) if they’re standing in front of the other team’s net, worried about getting their foot broken. They could probably use it as another (scoring) weapon.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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