What if you wanted to build a really good penalty killing unit?
“Then you don’t want to take dumb penalties,” Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock says.
It stands to reason. And the Leafs are actually doing it. Before Monday’s games, the Leafs had the lowest penalty minutes per game of the NHL’s 31 teams at 6.5 a game.
Well, actually there is a little more to it, which is why the Leafs’ penalty killing was actually ranked eighth in the NHL before Monday’s game with an 82.5-per-cent efficiency percentage in 14 games. In their past two games, though, the unit was perfect, going two-for-two in a loss against the Dallas Stars and five-for-five against the Pittsburgh Penguins in a 5-0 win. The Leafs took several of those dumb penalties against the Penguins after keeping their penalties to three or fewer in the previous four games.
The success can be attributed to aggressive play against opposing power plays, especially by the forwards, and to goaltender Frederik Andersen. Some of that aggression comes from the use of winger Mitch Marner on the penalty kill of late. He uses his speed to force the opposition into mistakes.
“[If] we get our feet moving we can break up a good team’s breakout,” Marner said Monday as the Leafs prepared for Tuesday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights. “That’s what we did against Pittsburgh. We were ready to go for that first PK and from then on we made sure we were moving, getting in lanes and making it hard on their best guys.”
Since “their best guys” are Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang, it was not a bad test for the unit. Marner, Zach Hyman, Par Lindholm, Connor Brown et al frustrated the Penguins all night. Marner and Lindholm almost combined on a short-handed goal. The Leafs have only one short-handed goal this season, compared with an astounding seven in 12 games for the Arizona Coyotes, but Marner thinks more should come.
“We are trying to get back to the puck quick,” Marner said. “We’re trying to talk to our [defencemen], we’re not really trying to get too many offensive chances. We’re just trying to get down the ice and use our speed to our advantage. I think if we keep doing that, we’ll get chances off that.”
On the defensive side, Andersen is a capable last line of defence, having shed the October troubles that plagued him since coming to the Maple Leafs three years ago. Up until this season, Andersen always had a shaky month at the start of the season and then righted himself in November.
While there were a few ups and downs, Andersen was not the problem for the Leafs’ recent skid that ended with the win over Pittsburgh. His save percentage is a cool .924, second in the NHL to the .935 posted by Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Andersen says the improvement is the result of a change in his off-season training. In previous summers, the Dane says he was too concerned with either adding or losing weight on his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame. Under the eye of his long-time trainer Scot Prohaska, Andersen gave up extensive weight training in favour of working on his agility and building his core muscles.
The goal was to enable Andersen to move around his crease both quickly and efficiently. He also adopted a more aggressive mental approach in training camp rather than easing up on the ice from time to time.
“[Prohaska] helped me to find some things that could help me, so I could feel good and feel athletic right away and move really well in the crease,” Andersen, 29, said. “Obviously you’ve got to be able to push strong, push fast. But at a certain level, you don’t stop any more pucks just because you can lift 500 pounds.”
The Leafs will go from facing one of the best power plays in the league to one of the worst with the visit from the Golden Knights. Vegas is in the midst of a terrible hangover from their inaugural season that saw them make an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Knights are seventh in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division with a 6-7-1 record. Their power play is 28th in the NHL with a success rate of 12.5 per cent. Not that Babcock is selling the Knights short.
“We know how good they are, how fast they are, how deep they are,” he said. “It will be a challenge, but we’re excited to play them.”