Struggles to score at root of Leafs' woes

ROB LONGLEY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

You can question his tact at times, but the more he languishes as coach of the Maple Leafs, the more Ron Wilson finds ways to acknowledge his is not a good hockey team.

With an offence that is truly offensive despite leading the league in shots on goal, the Leafs are learning by the game that hard work means little if you have hands of stone.

“It (takes) an incredible amount of energy for us to put together enough of an attack,” Wilson said following the team’s latest loss, Saturday’s 4-1 home defeat to the struggling Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

“We are not a natural goal-scoring team. We’re not gifted there, plain and simple.”

Harsh as it is, the man has a point.

In 10 of their past 12 games, the Leafs have been held to two goals or less. That’s not going to win you many games in peewee house league, never mind against the best pros in the world and, in fact, the Leafs have just two wins in that stretch.

Validating the lack-of-talent principle is one of the few positive statistics the Leafs have achieved this season: A league-leading average of 34.1 shots on goal per game. A shooting percentage of 7.6 (second worst in the league), hammers home the rotten reality of the absence of skill.

In back-to-back games this weekend, the Leafs had a combined 93 shots on net against the Penguins and Sabres but had only three goals. Against Pittsburgh, an incredible 22 more shots were blocked before reaching the net.

“We have to get rebounds, get screens, get some shots (to the net),” forward Alexei Ponikarovsky said with a shoulder shrug, when asked what the Leafs need to do to break out. “That’s pretty much how you are going to score.”

Part of it, too, is bad luck, but it’s tough to use that as an excuse given the Leafs’ general aversion to go to the dirty places in front of the net. If Pens captain Sidney Crosby — hardly one of the more physically imposing players in the league — can do it, why can’t the Leafs forwards make more regular visits?

Leafs “sniper” Phil Kessel is shooting mostly blanks these days and, with one goal in his past 12 games, and endured the wrath of Wilson at practice the other day.

On Saturday, Kessel hit the post once in the third period and later was denied on a kick save by Marc- Andre Fleury that was equal parts block and blind luck.

Then there was centre Rickard Wallin, who showed in the second period why he may never again score in the NHL, when he had a gaping open net to shoot at and fired it wide.

It doesn’t help that their past two games have been against Olympic goaltenders — Fleury and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller. But the Leafs need to be more accurate and somehow create more threatening scoring opportunities if they intend to challenge even run-of-the-mill netminders.

The team continues to think playoffs and the only reason that isn’t completely absurd is that the Eastern Conference is ridiculously weak right now. But with the recent slide, the Leafs have slipped to nine points behind Montreal for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Remember the ridicule they endured a year ago? Well, through 46 games, the Leafs have 39 points, two fewer than they did at that point of the 2008-09 season.

Another good run, such as their promising stretch in December, could get the Leafs back on the fringes of this turtle derby in a hurry. But until the offence wakes up, it’s just talk.

“It’s not like we’re not getting chances,” Wilson said. “We’ve just got to stick with it. Eventually the puck’s going to go in.”

Based on current form, don’t bet the bankroll on it.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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