It seems the Toronto Maple Leafs’ penalty killers are taking themselves a little too literally these days.
They are killing everything in sight except penalties: momentum, leads and enthusiasm.
The unit that made such great strides almost a year ago, going from one of the worst in the NHL to the second-best by the end of last season, is now back to its former depths. Two consecutive power-play goals by the Boston Bruins in the second period Sunday night crushed a good opening period by the Leafs and led to a 5-2 loss.
“It’s killing our momentum,” agreed Leafs forward Jay McClement, whose goal in the third period inspired a few thoughts of a comeback but only a few. The power-play goals by Bruins Carl Soderberg and Torey Krug, one minute, 33 seconds apart in the second period, made it 13 goals coughed-up by the penalty killers in the Leafs’ last eight games.
“It’s like any other part of your game, once you lose confidence in something it’s hard to get it back,” McClement said. “When we had it going good, last year and the first part of this year, we almost had a swagger.”
What must be driving Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle crazy these days is that his team’s embarrassing play in its own end is due as much or more to mental mistakes than simply getting knocked around physically. There were far too many instances of the Leafs failing to clear pucks when they had a chance or forgetting to cover the front of their own net, leaving goaltender Jonathan Bernier to fend for himself.
On the first Boston power-play goal, Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf helpfully tried to fire the puck up the middle of the ice rather than around the boards and it wound up on the stick of Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron. Then Leaf centre Trevor Smith deflected Bergeron’s pass right to winger Reilly Smith, who was parked at the left side of the net. He flipped it back out front where Soderberg had no Leaf defender near him, making for an easy goal at 5:14.
Twenty seconds later, Leaf defenceman Carl Gunnarsson grabbed Jarome Iginla on a rush for a holding penalty and the penalty killers flopped again. Leaf forward Mason Raymond had the puck and all kinds of time to get it out of the Toronto zone but could not manage it.
A slapshot from Krug from the point quickly followed and the Bruins had two consecutive power-play goals. Bernier could not be faulted on the goal, especially since the 6-foot-9 Chara took up residence in front of him with nary a protest from any of the Leafs.
The Leaf penalty killers either stand around watching or leave their posts in a frenzy to chase pucks. The Leafs, of course, had no business collapsing in the second period after a strong first. They may have been playing the second of back-to-back games but so were the Bruins. Plus, the visitors were coming off Saturday night’s circus in Boston that cost them forward Loui Eriksson and Shawn Thornton. They were also dealing with injuries to other key players.
Thornton was suspended for beating Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik senseless and now awaits an NHL hearing. Thornton did this to avenge a hit Orpik made on Eriksson that left him with his second concussion of the season.
The Bruins also helped the Leafs out by starting backup goaltender Chad Johnson. It seemed to be working out at first when Peter Holland scored to put them up 1-0 but then the Leaf penalty-killers went to work.
Carlyle did not rip into his penalty killers. He said they “did a pretty good job except for the two clears.” However, Carlyle added, “what’s tough for the coaching staff is where [other teams] are scoring the goals from – the back door and the high slot,” which goes to those mental errors by the defenders.
It also did not help that after McClement scored his first goal of the season 37 seconds into the third period, the Leafs had two power plays but could not manage a goal.
Then Jarome Iginla scored at 16:00 to put the Bruins up 4-2 and Bergeron finished the scoring with an empty-net goal. Kevan Miller, with his first NHL goal, had the other Boston goal..
Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts
Get all the latest Globe and Mail hockey coverage on Twitter: @globehockey