Penalty kill trouble kills Leafs

Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek (26) and right wing Drew Stafford (21) put pressure on...

Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek (26) and right wing Drew Stafford (21) put pressure on Toronto Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer (34) and defenceman Carl Gunnarsson during the second period of their NHL hockey game in Buffalo, New York December 16, 2011. (REUTERS/Doug Benz)

Mike Zeisberger, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:18 AM ET

BUFFALO - If the speculation is true that a contract extension for coach Ron Wilson is indeed in the works, it quickly took a back seat to the potential fate of captain Dion Phaneuf and another shoddy effort from the Maple Leafs penalty killing unit on Friday night.

Judging by the scowl on the face of general manager Brian Burke as he exited the press box after the Maple Leafs’ 5-4 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, a potential new deal for his bench boss was the last thing he wanted to talk about.

It would seem the Leafs GM has more pressing issues on his mind.

In the span of three hours, his team lost a game against a division rival, lost it’s composure in the process, and may end up losing its captain due to suspension.

The defeat now leaves the Leafs in a sixth place tie with the Sabres and New Jersey Devils in the east with 35 points. More importantly, they are just three points out of 12th heading into Saturday night’s contest against Stanley Cup runners-up Vancouver at the Air Canada Centre.

It’s difficult enough to beat the Canucks at full strength. Having to play them without Phaneuf would be that much more difficult.

As he addressed the media after the game, Phaneuf said he had not yet heard from the league. He will. By the time you read this, he may have already.

Given the recent tendencies of NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan, the general consensus on press row was that the odds were better of Phaneuf receiving a fine rather than a suspension for wallpapering Buffalo’s Zack Kassian into the boards from behind at 17:01 of the second period.

While the controversial Kassian was no choir boy in his junior career, it’s doubtful that will play into Shanahan’s decision. Kassian was suspended for a total of 24 games during his OHL career.

Phaneuf did not take a lengthy run at Kassian, who veered into the boards just before impact. Having said that, Sherrif Shanny will have the final say in the matter.

Phaneuf was slapped with a boarding major and game misconduct for his actions.

“I did not mean to board him,” Phaneuf said. “I was trying to finish my check. He turned into the boards at the last moment.”

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff did not rant and rave about the incident, but called the play a “suspendable offence” in today’s NHL.

Whether Phaneuf faces the Canucks or not, the Leafs could potentially be run out of their own building in front of a national television audience on Saturday if they keep taking silly penalties, ones they continue having problems killing off. Keep in mind that the Canucks come into the game with the top-ranked power play in the NHL.

Whether Wilson, in fact, does end up getting an extension or not, poor penalty killing has been an Achilles heel of his Leaf teams during his 31/2 years behind the Toronto bench.

The Leafs penalty-killing unit, which has been at or near the NHL basement in recent memory, came into the game ranked 29th in the league, having surrendered 30 power-play goals while being shorthanded 116 times.

Friday did not help those stats. The Leafs surrendered another three goals while shorthanded, spoiling ex-Sabre Tim Connolly’s return to Buffalo.

In the end, the Leafs took 23 minutes in penalties. The Sabres? Just four.

“I would like to see us draw more penalties by moving our feet more,” said Connolly, who received a smattering of boos when his name was announced as part of the Leafs starting lineup prior to the game.

No team that finished a season with the 30th-ranked penalty killing unit has ever reached the playoffs.

Thomas Vanek led the Sabres with a pair of goals, part of a four point night. Drew Stafford, Andrej Sekera and Tyler Ennis also scored for Buffalo.

Phaneuf, Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul and Nik Kulemin, on a penalty shot, scored for the Leafs. Kulemin’s goal was his first in 24 games.

“It’s such a relief,” Kulemin said.

That’s not a feeling being shared by Wilson and Burke right now.

Check out the live chat the ran during the game.


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