Maybe this is one of those times when the Toronto Maple Leafs should be asked to do at least one thing in a half-measure.
So far this NHL season, the Leafs’ power play has been either very good or very bad. Much like their 5-on-5 play – when they are either standing around watching their goaltender save their bacon, or suddenly erupting in a flurry of goals at the other end of the ice – there is no middle ground.
Given the power play has been mostly bad since the Sochi Olympic break, finding even middle ground here would be progress. And we’re not just talking about a power play that can’t score. No, this one gets scored upon regularly of late.
Toronto surrendered four short-handed goals in the last week, the latest coming last Wednesday in New York, where the Rangers scored twice on a single Leafs power play to erase a 2-0 Toronto lead (the Leafs managed to win in overtime).
The wonky week brought the number of short-handed goals allowed by the Leafs this season to 10 – tied for the most in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers, who will be at the Air Canada Centre to play Toronto on Saturday.
This is not a mark of distinction.
While most of the principals of the beleaguered unit weren’t around for an optional practice Thursday, defenceman Jake Gardiner could not offer any theories other than: Stuff happens.
“I don’t think there’s a problem, really,” Gardiner said. “It’s just play makers trying to make plays and they screw up. It happens to every team. [Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney] Crosby makes mistakes, too. [Ours] just happened to end up in the back of our net.”
Since Gardiner is a lad of 23, we won’t slap him around for comparing the best player in hockey to the Leafs power play. At least he admitted it is “screw-ups” that are killing the power play in recent days.
That awful man advantage in Manhattan saw both an egregious mental mistake and a slice of terrible luck. (Although the Leafs compounded the problem by getting trapped in their own end by the Rangers penalty killers, which usually happens because the players on the power play are lazily figuring the short-handed team should stand back and let them move the puck.)
The bad luck came when a shot by Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh, which was headed wide of goaltender Jonathan Bernier, first hit a Leafs stick and then caromed off Toronto defenceman Dion Phaneuf’s skate and into the net.
Okay, you can live with something like that. But not with the kind of mistake Phil Kessel made before the power play was over.
The Toronto winger tried to force a pass through three Rangers. It was picked off, of course, and resulted in a breakaway goal for Dominic Moore.
“We just have to move on from it,” Gardiner said. “I’m sure it won’t happen again … hopefully.”
That last statement was not exactly a Mark Messier guarantee of a win. And there is ample evidence the Leafs are not quick learners from their mistakes.
However, they can still argue the special-teams unit is not quite ready to be stripped down for a rebuild. Despite its pratfalls in the last four games, the power play was still tied for fifth in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche going into Thursday’s games (with a success rate of 21 per cent).
Also, there are other teams with good power plays that cough up a lot of short-handed goals. The Washington Capitals are second in the NHL both in the success of their power play (23-per-cent efficiency) and in short-handed goals (eight). The Flyers have 10 boo-boos like the Leafs, but their power play operates at a decent 20.1-per-cent success rate.
Nevertheless, when you look at the Leafs miscues overall, it is a sign of a team in need of an attitude adjustment. It needs to come quickly, since the Flyers game will be followed by a week-long road trip in which the first three opponents are the Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings.
That is a lot of potential for mistakes to end up in the back of the net.