TORONTO - Maybe the Minnesota Wild need to listen to Leafs coach Ron Wilson when it comes to killing penalties. Not so much how to kill a penalty, but how to avoid taking them.
The Leafs came into the new year with the worst penalty kill in the league but since the calendar turned to 2012, Toronto’s PK has been perfect.
The Maple Leafs’ run of exceptional work on the penalty kill reached eight games on Thursday night, a streak in which they have killed off 14 consecutive penalties and, more importantly, have managed to take two or less in each game since the start of January with the exception of a 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay lightning in which they took five.
One of the big reasons the Maple Leafs have taken so few penalties is because Wilson has been preaching discipline — you don’t have to kill penalties if you don’t take them — and it seems his players have bought in. Basically, he has been telling them to keep their sticks under control and keep their feet moving and good things will happen as far as limiting penalties.
In a 4-1 win over the Wild at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs took only two penalties while Minnesota took six — all in the second period. That in a nutshell was the difference in this game.
Sure the Leafs converted on only one of those penalties, but being short-handed wore down the Wild. Most of Minnesota’s penalties were stick infractions, including two for hooking, a clear sign of being weary. If you are too tired to skate, you tend to clutch, grab and hook.
Leafs forward David Steckel, probably the worst skater on the team, was also guilty of hooking during the second period in the Leafs’ zone. Again, a player not moving his feet.
It looks, for one night anyway, that Wilson’s experimentation with the lines paid huge dividends. Nazem Kadri batted in a bouncing puck just 50 seconds into the game off a feed from new linemate Joffrey Lupul. Lupul was taken off his line with Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak and replaced by Matthew Lombardi to help create some better defensive thinking. And while the trio was removed from playing together on the top line, Wilson smartly reunited Kessel, Lupul and Bozak on the power play. Again, only one goal came out of it but they really moved the puck around nicely and wore down the Wild.
“We had balance and played well defensively,” Wilson said after the game.
Nice work by Joey Crabb to pick up some speed and go wide around the Minnesota defence in the first period to put Toronto up 2-0. Mind you, nobody at the ACC thought it was a goal, but it didn’t take the refs long to decide it was going to stand after a quick review. The Leafs winger made a great move to the net on his backhand, brought it to his forehand and slid it under Nicklas Backstrom. The net came off its moorings when a Wild player slid into it and the puck came out the other side. The goal went to review but it was instantly clear from the replay that Crabb had scored. It was Crabb’s eighth of the season and his first at home. “I just used my speed to go wide and pulled it across,” Crabb said. “To tell the truth I saw a (Jordan) Eberle goal where he pulled it all the way across the crease so I had a little more confidence to do that.”
THIS AND THAT
Not a whole lot of energy at the ACC last night during the first, other than when the Leafs scored and couple of hits were thrown ... Speaking of hits, you have to be ready to take them. Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf got laid out along the boards in his own end with about five minutes remaining in the period when Wild winger B put the body on him. Didn’t look like that hard of a hit. Maybe Phaneuf just wasn’t prepared … Leafs needed to be a little more alert when goalie Jonas Gustavsson lost his stick in behind his own net with about four minutes left in the frame. Though he continued to call for it, play went all the way from the Leafs’ end into Minnesota’s and back into Toronto’s before Carl Gunnarsson came to the aid of his fellow Swede … Lupul got a little too fancy in the offensive zone near the end of the first. After racing into the zone, he elected to make a drop pass from the top of the circle. Of course, as many back passes are, it was intercepted. He should have just fired it at the net.
It has been announced that the Leafs have made it mandatory for their players to wear helmets during practice after the injury to Edmonton Oilers forward the other day. Only Phaneuf, Lupul and Colton Orr, now with the Marlies, chose not to wear helmets … Nice play by Luke Schenn to knock down a Minnesota Hail Mary at the Leafs’ blue line with time running out in the first and keep the 2-0.