Leafs' D deadly at both ends of rink
Terry Koshan, QMI Agency
|Toronto Maple Leafs' Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel, Jake Gardiner, Luke Schenn and Joffrey Lupul celebrate Schenn's third period goal against the Ottawa Senators Saturday night. Leafs won, 5-0. (REUTERS)
The kind of defence that Ron Wilson saw when he peered into his crystal ball in training camp last September has evolved into reality.
The Maple Leafs’ group is not only helping to keep the puck out of the net, to the tune of 27 goals against in 14 games in 2012, but also is adept at contributing at the other end.
Leafs defencemen, led by captain Dion Phaneuf’s 30 points, have accounted for 119 points in 2011-12, third most in the National Hockey League behind the Ottawa Senators (127) and the Vancouver Canucks (123).
Last season, when the Leafs missed the playoffs yet again, their defencemen totalled 109 points.
There’s a lot more happening with the blue-line group than simply thrusting themselves into the play and hoping something good happens.
“Nowadays, you have to have five guys (on the attack),” coach Ron Wilson said after practice on Sunday afternoon at the MasterCard Centre. “People back-check hard. If you don’t have the defence involved, then it’s three-on-four, three-on-five. We’re fortunate we can have (at least) four guys involved in the play. That really helps a lot.”
It also helps that for the past couple of games, Wilson has had the luxury of seven healthy defencemen. That has meant that Mike Komisarek has been a healthy scratch the past two games (and will be again when the Leafs play host to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday night) but also that Wilson can keep the pairs he wants together. Phaneuf and Carl Gunnarsson are the shut-down pair, John-Michael Liles is partnered with Cody Franson and the smooth-skating Jake Gardiner is with the defensive-minded Luke Schenn.
The Leafs’ transition game has been more fluid with Liles back after recovering from a concussion. His ability to the move the puck, in Wilson’s mind, has spread confidence to the other defencemen that they can do the same.
What’s more, the defencemen have taken from theory and put into games the knowledge of realizing what they can and can’t do.
“It’s nice to be able to have that green light and be able to jump into the play, but you treat it with respect,” Franson said. “You don’t want to get caught and end up putting your team down a goal because you made a bad pinch.
“We want to be involved in that second and third wave, but be smart about it. We’ve tried to focus on putting ourselves in a good position and taking advantage of our rush opportunities.”
Wilson said he will use the same lineup against the Oilers that beat the Ottawa Senators 5-0 on Saturday night, indicating that James Reimer, with a couple of shutouts stashed away in his locker, will get his third start in a row.
The Leafs will go into the game in eighth in the Eastern Conference, and got some help on Sunday when the Boston Bruins beat the ninth-place Washington Capitals.
Speaking of the Bruins, Joffrey Lupul couldn’t help but notice they were just six points up on the Leafs before they knocked off the Caps.
“For us to be only (eight) points behind them and to have lost to them four times this year, we have pretty much played the rest of the NHL as good if not better than them,” Lupul said. “Our team has a ways to go before we are mentioned with the Bruins, we know that. They are the Stanley Cup champs, but right now it’s a good time for our team to shift our focus to getting teams in our sights and tracking them down.”
That task should be less of a challenge with a defence corps that is playing its best hockey of the season.
“Fortunately, we have been patient and not given away assets (in trades),” Wilson said of the depth. “We want our defencemen to be aggressive, but not to the point where we sell the farm to score a goal. Our thing right now is learning how to protect the lead but not by tapping on the brakes. It’s understanding that we want that third or fourth goal, but not going to take chances in order to do it.”