Senseless penalties become magnified

AL STRACHAN

, Last Updated: 11:59 AM ET

Let's take Hockey Strategy for $200, Alex.

"The answer: What you shouldn't do when your best penalty-killer is out of the lineup."

"What is: Stage a parade to the penalty box?"

If you knew that one, that puts you one step ahead of the Bryan McCabe and Mats Sundin.

Those two took three unanswered penalties last night -- within a span of eight minutes -- and the Washington Capitals scored on all three power plays.

To that point, the game had been tight, with neither team having managed to score. But McCabe's second penalty of the night and the pair by Sundin put an end to all that.

Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Dainius Zubrus took advantage of the early Christmas gifts and got the Capitals rolling towards their 3-2 victory.

To his credit, Sundin tried to atone for his mistakes by single-handedly attempting to lead the Leafs to a comeback. He scored on a third-period penalty shot and added another goal 14 seconds later.

But the Leafs never did manage to climb out of the early hole they had dug for themselves.

GOOD INTENTIONS

In the early part of the evening, it appeared that they actually intended to make some adjustments to try to overcome the absence of Michael Peca. But their performance in the second period quickly put that conjecture to rest.

And now, even with Peca having been gone for only one game, it's clear that the Leafs are going to have to consider their approach somewhat differently.

Peca was taken out by Jim Vandermeer of the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday night and, although it wasn't a dirty hit, the fact remains that Peca will be out for such a long time that he wasn't even listed on last night's official sheet as a scratch. He has already been moved off the active roster on to the long-term injury list.

To counter one of the problems created by Peca's absence, coach Paul Maurice used Sundin. He had him taking many of the defensive-zone faceoffs that used to be Peca's responsibility.

Sundin is fairly good in that regard, but he is not as good as Peca. Few are. But he did win 11 of his first 19.

Sundin's strategy is to get down low, and lean forward, sometimes even putting his head under the head of his opponent. For a guy as tall as Sundin, it seems like a strange tactic, but it means that he can move his hands right down on the stick and therefore react quickly when the puck is dropped.

Also, being as tall as he is, when he straightens up, he knocks his opponent off balance and can do so without getting a penalty.

For a while last night, the Leafs were having some success. At least they weren't losing. They were playing their positions well and it was interesting to note that what appeared to be a two-on-one break for Washington was neutralized when Alexander Suglobov came flying back to even up the manpower. Even though he is lacking in experience, he works hard and knows his job.

But if the Leafs hope to replace Peca, it's going to take an effort from the entire team. And even then, they're still going to be short.

The best way to make certain that Peca's penalty-killing prowess isn't unduly missed is to minimize the number of times the team has to kill penalties.

STAY ALERT

That means that defensive leaders such as McCabe have to stay alert so that they don't get caught flat-footed and have to take penalties to prevent breaks.

It means that team leaders such as Sundin have to stay away from unnecessary holding or cross-checking penalties, even if they try hard to make up for it later.

No one person can replace Peca. But intelligent play from the whole team would help.

Merry Christmas. And goodbye.



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