Leafs have power to improve

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

NEW YORK -- If you chart the Maple Leafs season, you'll see a distinct correlation between the victories and the success of the power play.

During the happy times at the beginning of the year, the Leafs power play was the scourge of the league. But when it went into a slide, so did the Leafs' fortunes.

It was an observation that coach Pat Quinn accepted without reservation.

"I think you're absolutely right," he said after putting his team through its paces yesterday. "Our power play has been something that won games early on for us and hasn't won games recently."

In a discussion of "recent" games, there was no need to go any further back than a 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. "We had six minutes in the last period to win a hockey game," Quinn said. "We mustered some chances, but we sure didn't score."

Part of the problem is that the power play has become too predictable. Regular Leafs watchers will have noticed that there are two basic plays.

The first is to get the puck to Bryan McCabe for a slap shot from the right point. The second is to set up to the goaltender's right, then try a cross-crease pass to someone sliding in on the other side, usually Darcy Tucker or Mats Sundin.

But in today's hockey, the only thing that travels faster than news about tactics is Brian Burke spotting a TV camera.

Therefore, the McCabe option is long gone. That leaves the low option. But that, too, has been overused, so much so that Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller darted across the crease to stop what appeared to be a sure goal on Thursday.

He did it, he said, because he watches the highlights on the nightly sports shows. He has seen it before. Often.

Clearly, the opposition knows what's coming. "We've talked about that and are trying to work on other options," Quinn said.

One of them is to get the low quarterback, usually Jason Allison, to move a bit more. When he has the puck, he stands about 15 feet away from the net, but as long as he's stationary opponents usually leave him alone.

If he were to head toward the net, he would force movement from defenders. And one of the keys to power-play success is to get opponents moving.

"That's one option we're trying to encourage," Quinn said. "If we can draw that bottom defenceman up a little, to go to Mats. When we go low with the play, we have to move off it more quickly. We haven't been moving off it."

If a defenceman comes out to meet Allison, then there should be a two-on-one opportunity in front of the net for the other two Toronto forwards.

"He tried it a couple times (against Buffalo)," Quinn said, "and I'd like to see them try it more.

"When (opponents) start to take options away, you have an extra guy so you should be able to run several options off it. And if they're trying to shade one guy or take him away, those other options should have a higher percentage to them."

HAVE TO IMPROVE

It is in this specific area that the Leafs have to improve. It's not just a matter of making the power play better, it's a matter of making the low power play better.

The high power play -- the one that relies on a McCabe shot -- has evaporated because the defenders are staying around that part of the world. So the low power play has to make them pay the price.

"It has been okay," Quinn said, "but it hasn't been as effective as you think it should be, knowing that Bryan is being smothered all the time. His shot is not even getting through now."

At times this year, the Leafs' power play has carried the them. If they are to get into the playoffs, it will have to be the vehicle once again -- with the forwards carrying the load.


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