Firewagon hockey is fine — until you start to smell smoke through the back porch and kitchen.
So, Ron Wilson will turn down the heat up front on Monday, counting on that precaution helping the Maple Leafs’ zone being a much safer place. The most significant move will see Tyler Bozak, the centre of the Eastern Conference’s most sizzling scoring duo, replaced with a safety device named Tim Connolly. That’s in the hope that Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul can still fill the net but see fewer red lights go off in their own end of the rink.
“They’ve scored a lot of goals, but been on the ice for a lot,” Wilson conceded. “It’s just a chance to find a little bit more balance in our scoring and balance in our defence.
Power play stays
“We’re getting more of the (forward line) look we expected earlier in the season,” Wilson added. “Timmy is pretty healthy, now. I don’t think we’ll change the power play because Bozie is doing a great job there. But (with Connolly at centre), they’ve played together six times and were really successful and so were we as a team.”
With the Leafs in a funk of 2-5-1 that threatens their modest success in the first third of the season, Monday’s home game against the dysfunctional Los Angeles Kings is an ideal time to change the routine to re-distribute the pluses and minuses in the lineup.
As Connolly gets used to Kessel and Lupul, again, Bozak is to move back with Matt Frattin and either Joey Crabb or Colby Armstrong, the latter sitting out Sunday’s practice with a sore foot.
And in another attempt to give Nikolai Kulemin a comfort zone in familiar surroundings, he is back with Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski.
“I want that line to find some chemistry and get the job done,” Wilson said with a hint of impatience in his voice. “We expected them to be our No. 2/No. 1 line and, for whatever reason, it hasn’t always worked. I want them to get going. Bozie played with Frattin some in the pre-season and Crabby can help there, too.”
Kulemin has one goal — that coming on a penalty shot Friday in Buffalo — since going stone cold after his second tally of the season back on Oct. 22.
Lupul, meanwhile, was a minus-3 in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks and Kessel showed he can still be far too loose with the puck. Bozak and Kessel have worked particularly well with Lupul’s bullish approach to the net, but Bozak can’t argue with the moves in light of the recent downturn in club fortunes.
“We’re not winning a lot lately, so things have to change up,” Bozak said. “Hopefully, this gets us back in the win column. We could use a little improvement (5-on-5). Our penalty-killing has let us down a bit and there have been turnovers in the neutral zone. We get flat-footed and it’s too hard to stop a rush going the other way.”
With the changes to the lines, comes another switch in goal. It’s back to James Reimer after he and then Jonas Gustavsson were lit up five times apiece in back-to-back losses to Buffalo and Vancouver. It hasn’t escaped the notice of Reimer or Wilson that Toronto’s last-place penalty-killing unit seems to save its worst games for his starts. Of his 31 goals against, 13 have come with the Leafs down a man.
“In the games I’ve played, it hasn’t been the greatest, but I’m partly responsible for that as one of the guys on the ice,” Reimer said. “It can be kind of streaky. When you have confidence, you get on a roll, you don’t let anything by. When confidence isn’t there, you are hesitant about what to do.”
Mostly it has been the latter.
“That hasn’t helped (Reimer), but in a couple of instances, he should have made a save,” Wilson said. “It goes hand-in-hand. We have to do a better job staying out of the box. Fortunately, last night we only had to kill one penalty.”
With centre David Steckel still not at practice with a touch of bronchitis, the Leafs might go with seven defencemen again on Monday.
Somehow, in this new arrangement, the Leafs have to find a way to win. Or, they’ll truly be on the hot seat.