Leafs have Sharks' instincts

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:32 AM ET

The Maple Leafs really are starting to resemble the San Jose Sharks.

Minus, of course, the groovy teal uniforms and the superstar players.

The Leafs' penalty kill has been lights out in their last four games, going 2-for-2 Saturday in the 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators, 4-for-4 in the 4-2 victory last Thursday in Boston and killing off the lone penalty in the 3-2 loss to Anaheim last Tuesday. In 1-0 shootout loss in New York on Oct.17, the Leafs were a perfect 8-for-8.

Last night, in a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vincent Lacavalier scored at 4:08 of the second period to break the streak, though the Leafs still were 4-for-5 on the penalty kill, including killing off a 5-on-3 power play for 1:34 in the first period.

The fact that the Leafs have only had to kill seven penalties in the three games leading up to last night's contest says something for team discipline and the fact that head coach Ron Wilson, who coached in San Jose the past five seasons, has convinced players to block shots. Team speed also is a factor.

"We have speed, so use your speed. Most of our guys can skate very well, and when you have speed, you shouldn't be taking penalties," said Wilson. "Slow teams take penalties."

Last season, Wilson's Sharks led the NHL in penalty kills, with a resounding 85.8% success rate. The Leafs, on the other hand, were second from last, at 78.1%. The Sharks were short-handed 310 times, compared to 352 for Toronto.

Another key to staying out of the box, Wilson said yesterday, is keeping two hands on the stick -- which most his defenceman find a huge adjustment from last season -- and keeping the stick down. Two hands on the stick means fewer holding penalties and keeping the stick down, obviously, cuts down on high stick and hooking infractions.

"Keeping your stick on the ice is good, defensive hockey. Having it up around your waist is just daring the referee to make a call," Wilson said.

Alex Steen and linemate Dominic Moore, Wilson's No.1 penalty-kill unit, also have been key to the club's success, as has the defence, including rookie Luke Schenn.

"Our forwards are starting to figure out the pressure points on our kill, and we've gotten good goaltending, that's always huge," Wilson said. "And we're getting more commitment from guys being in the shooting lanes."

Steen said the penalty kill has been a priority in practice.

"We've been working hard at it, practising it, and talking a lot of about it, and I think it's transitioned over to the game," Steen said. "We've done a better job putting pressure on the opposition once they get into our end."

"We're all on the same page," added first-line centre Matt Stajan, who also has been given duty on the penalty-kill. "Your best penalty killer is your goalie and our goalie (Vesa Toskala) has been playing great."


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