Leafs find 'special' balance

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:42 PM ET

Whap! Bam! Oof!

No, not a Batman re-run but the sound of Rickard Wallin blocking three consecutive drives on a Boston power play on Saturday, a couple from hard-shooting man-mountain Zdeno Chara.

Wallin and his teammates didn’t go home without bruises (22 blocks in all), but the Leafs know there is still lots to repay for the club’s debt of taking too many penalties and not killing them.

Besides knowing they will miss the playoffs for a fifth straight time, two near certainties for the Leafs are finishing 29th in the standings and 30th in bomb disposal.

It will be the second season in a row the Leafs bring up the rear in penalty killing, digging themselves a huge hole with 83 short-handed situations in the first 20 games. They gave up an average of more than one a game in that span, when they lost 12 of their first 13 contests. Contrast that with the past 20 games, 63 times short, just 10 goals allowed, with a slate of 10 wins and 10 losses. That has to be the mindset in 2010-11 — if the Leafs are going to be the aggressors where physical play is concerned as Brian Burke wants.

“We got some fresh bodies (such as Fredrik Sjostrom, Dion Phaneuf) and changed our system,” Wallin said of the way the Leafs lock into assignments as they come back up-ice after clearing the puck. “But the biggest thing is that both our goalies (Jonas Gustavsson and J-S Giguere) have played well and that just builds confidence. When you believe in what you do, it’s a lot easier.

“At the beginning of the year, it didn’t matter what we did, the puck still ended up in our net. If we had a perfect 1:45, it always seemed something bad happened in the last 15 seconds (perhaps another argument for the NHL to adopt a time-based PK stat). Now we go out there and know we’re giving our goalies a better chance.

“It means a good feeling in the room that seems to go hand-in-hand with taking fewer penalties. Those unnecessary penalties seem to disappear.” Wallin said.

In five of the past six games, Toronto has been down just twice.

“We’ve been disciplined all year in terms of penalties,” countered coach Ron Wilson. “Sometimes minutes are up because of things like fighting. But with minor penalties, I think our discipline’s been great.”

Wilson must have missed Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin running around like rambunctious sailors on shore leave early in the year in a flawed attempt to make an impression with new teammates and fans, particularly the big-ticket Komisarek.

Before getting scratched for the season with shoulder woes, Komisarek had simplified his game and should be a very effective part of the penalty kill next year.

Wilson now knows that Tyler Bozak, Nikolai Kulemin, Viktor Stalberg and others can be trusted on the penalty kill.

But life with the Leafs means as one leak is plugged, another pops. Of the 84 power plays in the same 20-game span in March and April, only five have been converted. Wilson even gave defenceman Beauchemin a field promotion Saturday and stuck him in front of the Boston net, the same way the Bruins sometimes deploy Chara.

Will the 222-pound Colton Orr be next? With four goals, he’s not quite the mix of braun and scoring that made Tie Domi so valuable in the last decade, but his 211 penalty minutes include few moments of silly posturing or defensive liability. Orr’s four goals this year have already matched his 245 previous NHL games.

A man of few words, Orr blushed a bit when told Don Cherry was campaigning for Wilson to give him more ice time, but was quick to admonish the Leafs as a whole for letting the stumbling Bruins off the hook in the early going Saturday and in overtime when Bozak lost the draw to David Krejci and Phil Kessel lost track of scorer Miroslav Satan.

“These are games (with lots at stake in draft positioning and playoff spoiler roles) where we have to get guys to step up,” Orr said. “But we’re young, we’re showing a lot of promise. We’re not going to roll over and play dead and that’s the way it should be.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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