Leafs losing their punch

AL STRACHAN

, Last Updated: 5:42 AM ET

For the second game in succession, the Maple Leafs headed to the dressing room after the second period without as much as a single goal to show for their evening's work.

And for the second game in succession, they lost 2-1 -- this time to the New Jersey Devils, in a game that was every bit as boring as the score might indicate.

For the Leafs, a team that entered last night's action fourth in the National Hockey League in goals, the fact that they've scored only twice in two games obviously is something of a concern.

Perhaps the drought could be blamed on the absence of Mats Sundin. Certainly a team can't lose someone of Sundin's stature, especially the way he was playing this year, and not feel the impact.

Or perhaps it is just one of those inexplicable slumps that creep up on teams in every sport from time to time.

But there's also another possibility. Is it just a coincidence that in each of the past two games, the Leafs went to the power play only once in the first two periods?

The Leafs are a team that relies heavily on power plays and when they don't come, neither do the even-strength goals. The power-play goals are the crank to the engine, or as Reggie Jackson might put it, the straw that stirs the drink.

The Leafs are a team with a power-play mentality. They love to go on the power play and they love to score with the man advantage. Last year, they rode the power play as far as they could, and when it fizzled somewhat at the end of the season, they didn't make the playoffs.

This year, the power play isn't as dominant, but it's still a potent weapon, and opponents know that it is the key to the Toronto offence. Even without Sundin, the Leafs still are in the top third of the league in power-play scoring.

But they're not going to stay there very long if they're only averaging one minute per period with the man advantage.

Right now, this is the one area that's letting them down. In other aspects of the game, the Leafs are playing well. They don't make many defensive mistakes. They play with intelligence, and their transition game keeps getting better and better.

An integral part of every Toronto game plan is to apply pressure in the offensive zone. This is in direct contrast to the old drop-back-and-trap approach that used to infect hockey.

TEDIOUS DEVILS

It's also in direct contrast to the terminally tedious game that the Devils play. No wonder their attendance is dropping like a stone, despite stacks of free tickets being given away at local schools and despite inflated figures being announced. Who would want to pay to watch that 41 times a season?

The Leafs, on the other hand, are not afraid to send two forecheckers deep, and once in a while, the sharp-eyed observer will notice all three forwards behind the goal line.

But you can't forecheck if you're in your own end, and lately, the Leafs have been becoming increasingly efficient at turning defence into offence.

One of the most noticeable examples came late in the game against the Boston Bruins on Thursday. Tomas Kaberle teed up the puck deep in his own end and fired it right up the middle to Bates Battaglia at the far blue line.

Usually, the Leafs' up-the-middle passes don't cover so much distance, but increasingly, the Leafs are going up the middle rather than off the boards. That's the kind of thing that gets you a spot on the bench if you play for the Devils.

But none of this matters much if the Leafs can't score on the power play. They got a gift goal last night to make it close when Martin Brodeur sieved a routine shot from Darcy Tucker late in the game. And it's interesting to note that although Brodeur gives up very few bad goals, he seems to allow a disproportionate number to the Leafs.

But all the Tucker goal did was deflect attention away from the fact that if the Leafs aren't getting power plays, their offence is virtually non-existent.


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