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Leafs coach Ron Wilson takes to the ice as the Toronto Maple Leafs held an outdoor practice at Sunnydale Acres Rink in Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Leafs coach Ron Wilson takes to the ice as the Toronto Maple Leafs held an outdoor practice at Sunnydale Acres Rink in Toronto. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Jeff Blair

Poor penalty-killing does not reflect well on Ron Wilson Add to ...

There have been times in his coaching career when nobody killed penalties like Ron Wilson’s teams killed penalties. There’s his 1997-98 Washington Capitals, co-holders, with the 1999-2000 Dallas Stars, of the NHL’s single-season record with an 89.2-per-cent success rate. And in 2007-08, Wilson’s San Jose Sharks led the league at 85.8 per cent.

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Then consider that the Toronto Marlies have one of the best penalty-killing units in the American Hockey League, and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ long walk in the short-handed desert under Wilson remains a mystery – last in the league at 73.4 per cent.

The Leafs, who play the Detroit Red Wings at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday, had only one penalty in Thursday’s 4-0 win over a Winnipeg Jets team that, as usual, floundered on the road. The Leafs killed off the penalty, as they killed off all five penalties in a 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday.

Tampa, a team with high-end offensive talent, is dead last in the league on the power play on the road (seven goals in 82 opportunities, or 8.5 per cent) and fourth on the power play at home.

“Honestly,” Lightning head coach Guy Boucher responded when asked what the Leafs’ silver-lining brigade could take home from the penalty-kill shutout, “we wouldn’t have scored if we were playing against four orange cones.”

A false spring? The Red Wings will be more of a test.

Toronto is a city of analysts, and if explanations for the Leafs’ short-handed woes were compiled, they would boil down to some combination of too many minor penalties, fear of their own goaltender, a tendency to overreach for loose pucks in their own end while at the same time failing to challenge at the blueline. In general, there’s a passivity that suddenly turns frenetic when the opposing team starts to squeeze.

Wilson said after Friday’s practice that his team “bottomed out” in giving up two power-play goals in a 3-2 loss to the Jets on New Year’s Eve. He credited regular penalty-killing minutes for Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb for giving the unit more zest, joking about how “bubble players” will do anything to keep a job, including “sticking their head in front of a shot.”

The Leafs have had a fine collection of dead-enders in recent years, so you’d think the one area in which they’d be proficient would be a seat-of-the-pants penalty kill.

Now the expected return of Mike Brown and Mike Komisarek to the lineup Saturday, coupled with Dion Phaneuf’s uncertain status, could put the penalty kill in a state of flux. (X-rays revealed Phaneuf did not suffer a fracture after a shot hit the side of his face on Thursday, and he is expected to play Saturday after missing Friday’s practice.)

Ken Hitchcock’s Stars team in 1999-2000 shares the record for single-season penalty-killing efficiency with the Capitals that were coached by Wilson. Now head coach of the St. Louis Blues, Hitchcock said this week that weaknesses in penalty-killing units are among the most easily exposed items during video sessions, and that failing to address bad habits leads to a “sense of panic” in a game that is more than ever determined by special teams.

“Generally,” Hitchcock said, “the good penalty-killing teams beat you with their legs. You watch them and they’re skating to position instead of just sort of gliding into position. Some people will say you kill penalties with your head. To me, it’s always been the legs.”

Leafs defenceman Keith Aulie has split penalty-killing time with both the Marlies and the Leafs this season, and he shook his head when asked why one team has been so good and the other so bad.

“The structure’s the same,” he said with a shrug. “It’s really all a matter of confidence. With the Marlies, we’d go out on the PK thinking we were going to kill it off. One guy would pressure the other team, and all of a sudden we were all going at that team hard. When you are confident, you are comfortable. And when you are comfortable, you don’t try to make plays that aren’t there.”

After three and a half years of Wilson, there is no reason that this shouldn’t be part of the Leafs’ DNA. Along with being shut out from the playoffs, it’s the most disturbing blot on his résumé.

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