Leafs' penalty kill is murder

Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom (back) scores on Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer at the...

Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom (back) scores on Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9, 2011. (MOLLY RILEY/Reuters)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:26 AM ET

TORONTO - The Leafs might just be killing the confidence of their No. 1 goaltender since his return.

They are killing momentum in games by their inability to execute one of the essential parts of winning hockey.

And they are killing some of the good work they have done through the first third of this 2011-12 season.

What they arenít killing is penalties ó surrendering power-play goals at an alarming rate. If youíve paid more than passing attention to the team since the lockout, this isnít news, of course, but it is starting to defy any reasonable explanation.

The Leafs, losers of four of their past five, are improved in so many areas this season and at times have been dominant five-on-five. But when they get down a man or more, the ice gets tilted more than it does for any other team in the league.

The 29 power-play goals they have surrendered is at least five more than every other team (prior to Saturdayís action). Their penalty-kill is successful just 74.3% of the time and ranked 29th in the league. Not only that, a unit that has been nothing but dreadful in the Ron Wilson era is at a statistical low point.

This, by the way, is not just a one-game reaction to the Leafsí horrid display in a 4-2 loss to Washington on Friday in which all four Caps goals came with the man (or men) advantage. But giving up six short-handed goals in their past two games has certainly accentuated the problem, a fact not lost on their opponents.

Itís almost like the Capitals could sense fresh meat when they got a man up and the aggressive, speedy Leafs turned passive.

The Leafs have a case that a couple of those power-plays against the Caps should never have been. But there was no excuse for the too many men call or undisciplined penalties to Colby Armstrong and Joey Crabb.

Itís not as the Leafs have been overly undisciplined, either as their 11.2 penalty minutes per game is just 12th in the league. But nine times already they have given up multiple power-play goals in a game.

Of further concern, the struggling penalty kill unit has done nothing to boost Reimerís confidence in his return to the lineup. Notoriously hard on himself not just in defeat but when any puck gets by him, the struggling PK is a big reason Reimer is 0-3 since his return from injury.

Wilson has repeatedly over the years said that the key to successful penalty killing is great goaltending. Thatís a little simplistic, but thereís no doubt that there is a relation. While not to be blamed for any of the losses specifically, Reimerís save percentage since his return has dipped to .840 (in the loss to Boston), .885 (in the shootout loss to New Jersey) and .867 (vs. the Caps) for a season total of .896. And how about this: In his eight complete games this year, Reimer has given up 11 short-handed goals.

So who or what is to blame for the struggles is the question of the day, one the Leafs no doubt will take a long, hard look at when they return to practice Sunday at the Mastercard Centre. The reactionary component will point to the coaching staff and indeed the numbers have been alarming under Wilson. Personnel is a big part of that though and other than Reimerís big run last season, Wilson hasnít exactly had reliable goaltending for long stretches.

But after a slow start to the season, the team seemed like it had turned around both special teams. During a 10-game stretch in November, the PK was clicking at an 86% success rate. The much-improved power play has climbed to No. 2 in the league.

Of late, the team has struggled in the faceoff dot, an obvious liability when down a man. A victorious draw in your own zone can easily wipe 20-25 seconds off the clock. And too often, the aggression and speed the team uses to success in even-man situations seems to go on hiatus on the kill.

Have the struggles reached the crisis point? Probably not yet. But in what promises to be a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, the Leafs may need to find that killer instinct sooner than later.

KILLER INSTINCT?

Itís been a huge failing of the Leafs in recent seasons ó their struggles on the penalty kill. Hereís a look at their PK percentage over the past six and a half seasons. Note the disparity between the Leafs and the league leaders.

Season Rank Percentage NHL Best

2011-12 29 74.3 Devils (93.4)

2010-11 28 77.4 Pens (86.1)

2009-10 30 74.6 Blues (86.8)

2008-09 30 74.7 Rangers (87.8)

2007-08 29 78 Sharks (85.8)

2006-07 27 78.5 Canucks (86.9)

2005-06 24 80 Wild (87.4)

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport


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