The dirty work of penalty killing is not for the squeamish.
Between Vesa Toskala’s wonky goaltending and too few Maple Leafs willing to carry out coach Ron Wilson’s orders, the Leafs quickly fell to 30th in the NHL in that important area last year and never budged. An infuriated Wilson made that a key part of his training camp agenda, along with atoning for the 30th ranked power play.
New Leafs are strategically positioned throughout both special teams heading into Thursday night.
“Now we have people (on the penalty kill) who are willing to block shots and get in the way and follow the plan religiously,” Wilson said Wednesday. “(Centres) Tim Brent and Mike Zigomanis are very good, Freddy Sjostrom, when we picked him up, our penalty killing rapidly improved. There’s Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg, who won a Stanley Cup as one of (Chicago’s) primary penalty killers.”
Holdover defenceman Luke Schenn has now been around for two years with the Leafs stuck at the bottom of the penalty killing heap.
“It has been really bad,” Schenn agreed. “And it’s one thing that everybody knows has to get better.
“We’re going over it a lot more before games and practices. Now everyone is on the same page. We just have to read off each other better. If there is a loose puck or bobbled puck, we have to have pressure on it right away, we can’t sit back and allow the other team to make plays. There are too many good players who can quarterback power plays. We have to be more on our toes.
“We have to be aggressive out there and we have to get the big saves as well.”
Wilson said he wasn’t going to “pile on” Toskala for not being more of a difference when a man short, but Jean-Sebastien Giguere must continue to stop the bleeding as he did last season and most nights in exhibition play.
“You could see it, the big kill would give us a spark,” defenceman Mike Komisarek said. “Our guy would block a shot and pay the price and we’d move the puck out and score a goal. That happened a couple of times.”
The Leafs allowed 73 goals, almost double that of the first place St. Louis Blues, who faced 54 more chances. But Sjostrom said the Leafs don’t need to make the deficit up all at once.
“Our objective isn’t to be No. 1 right away, but as long as you’re up near the top in both penalty kill and power play, most likely you will have a good year,” Sjostrom said. “So many games are being decided by special teams, like a hot power play. And a lot of games have been saved by a good penalty kill.”