Drop the penalty kill from the equation and the Leafs win this one 2-0; there’s something, right?
Indeed, the storylines in Leafland will center largely around an embarrassingly inept penalty kill that’s edging towards all-time-league-record bad. Rickard Wallin’s short on NHL experience, nor does he appear to be living up to the billing as a defensive specialist.Â Nikolai Kulemin’s future is bright as a hard-working third liner or second line fill-in that can play all situations, but he’s still very much in the learning process. With Wayne Primeau out of the line-up for the immediate future (not to say that he was the solution here to begin with), Ron Wilson might be best to try new faces as his go-to penalty killing pairing up front. The read and react was far too slow tonight with Finger (x2), Kulemin and Wallin all caught flat-footed for goals. There’s also questions to be asked about the passivity of the approach, as opposition blue-liners are being given all the time and space they need to find the passing lanes and pick apart the Leafs’ defending four. Back to the drawing board, Wilson and co.
The Leafs did outshoot the Sabres tonight 51-32 and were not short on opportunities to tie this game up in the late stages, with Kessel a little slow to pounce on a loose puck with the net gaping and Jason Blake failing to get the puck up and over a sprawling Ryan Miller. The Leafs took the play to the Sabres 5-on-5 tonight, and committed two of the killer penalties in the form of a Viktor Stalberg high-sticking double minor unrelated to the play. The Leafs have little right to feel hard done by tonight, however, as a lack of capitalization and total ineffectiveness on both sides of special teams play can be enough to do a team in most nights.
A few other observations from tonight:
-A twenty minute, two assist, plus-two, third-star performance from Schenn evoked memories of the ’08-’09 Luke as his composure and confidence was visible at both ends of the ice tonight. Where he’s been nervous to release his slap shot that was trademark in junior, Schenn unleashed on a few occasions with good results (the Stajan tip that kickstarted the comeback attempt and a few near-goal scrambles). Former Kelowna defence partner Tyler Myers stole the headlines tonight but Schenn held his own with good decision-making at both ends of the rink. He was also instrumental in the second goal with a wise ring-around to set up John Mitchell’s eventual marker and draw the Leafs within one.
-After a quietly strong ’08-09 campaign for Jeff Finger, 2009-10 is quickly becoming a horror show for #4. Among the Leafs’ regular seven blueliners, Wilson has only trusted him against the second easiest competition according to QUALCOMP statistics and sent him out to defend merely 80 defensive zone faceoffs (second lowest on the blueline next to Garnet Exelby). In spite of it, Finger sits on a team-worst -11 plus/minus rating. Finger combined with Nikolai Kulemin (on goal one) and Rickard Wallin (on goal three) to allow Tyler Myers to walk in unabated to the back post for the opening and winning scores.
-I understand Wilson’s need to attach consequences to lackadaisical effort on the part of his veteran core, but stapling Hagman to the bench save for the occasional fourth line shift for more than two and a half periods seemed awfully excessive. Hagman remains the club’s second best natural offensive talent and sits on a team-leading 16 goals in 43 games. His impact when finally rotated onto the top lines around the thirteen minute mark of the third was positive; the message would’ve been effectively sent after twenty minutes.
-With the Leafs dangerously thin up the middle, hopefully John Mitchell’s late marker tonight will be a sign of good things to come.
-The scenes at the end of the game were revealing of Phil Kessel’s total frustration right now, but his answer lately appears to be the wrong one in attempting to do more rather than simplify. Teams have focused double-team attention on Kessel, and the solution here is to quickly dish off the puck and move into space rather than to try to take on the world. The source of his goal-scoring drought is the inability to get a shot off clean in prime scoring areas without it being blocked or partially deflected. He’s not as well-equipped in terms of linemates as he was in Boston, but with better puck movement, the space and subsequently the goals will come.
The Leafs will look to feed off the positives of a strong final 20 minutes tomorrow night and perhaps gain a rare early lead against a Pittsburgh Penguins team who, for what it’s worth, they’ve had the number of so far this season.