The Toronto Maple Leafs have an opportunity in the next 10 days to get their malodorous penalty-killing unit functioning.
During that period, they play four of five games at home, with four of those matches against opponents who rank among the NHL's lesser teams at scoring on the power play. With Leafs head coach Ron Wilson promising changes to the 29th-ranked PK unit this week, it's the perfect opportunity to work them in against relatively easier challenges.
The opponent Tuesday, the Carolina Hurricanes, were 25th among the league's 30 teams on the power play with a success rate of 13.1 per cent before the NHL's games Sunday. The Buffalo Sabres, who play host to the Leafs on Friday and play them Dec. 22 at the Air Canada Centre, are 18th with a 17-per-cent success rate. And the Los Angeles Kings, who come to Toronto on Dec. 19, are 20th at 16.8 per cent.
In the middle of all that, Wilson can even grade how his changes are doing against superior opposition. Next Saturday, in the third of those five games, the Leafs play the Vancouver Canucks, whose power play was the NHL's best by Sunday morning with a success rate of 26.4 per cent.
The coach indicated after practice Sunday his most significant change will be giving winger Colby Armstrong more ice time as a penalty killer. While he has excelled at this over his career, Armstrong's time as a penalty killer was limited this season by missing 23 games with a sprained ankle.
Wilson said he did not want to hand Armstrong a full workload when he returned to the lineup last Friday, when the Leafs fell to the Washington Capitals in an ugly 4-2 loss, but expects to use him more on Tuesday. "There'll be some different pairs and different looks the next game," Wilson said.
David Steckel and Philippe Dupuis are the forward duo used the most killing penalties and it looks like Armstrong will get a lot of Dupuis's minutes. Steckel should keep his place because of his ability to win faceoffs.
The key player, though, is goaltender James Reimer. He needs to be better. In three games since coming back from his head injury, Reimer has an awful .864 save percentage and six of the 11 goals he allowed were power-play goals.
If Wilson cannot dramatically improve the 74.3-per-cent success rate of the PK unit, the playoff dreams Leafs fans are having this season will be dashed in the first round. As important as special-teams play is during the regular season, it is doubly so in the playoffs, particularly when it comes to killing penalties.
Since the NHL game became more wide-open following the 2004-05 lockout, no Stanley Cup champion has had less than an 83-per-cent success rate killing penalties during the playoffs. Teams can get by with a so-so power play, as the Boston Bruins did last season (11.4 per cent) or the 2008 Detroit Red Wings (18.9 per cent) and 2007 Anaheim Ducks (15.2) did, but the penalty killers have to be first-rate.
The trouble is, this is not a new phenomenon for the Leafs. In the six full seasons since the lockout, the best their penalty killers finished in a season was 24th. It's also a big reason why the Leafs missed the playoffs in all six of those seasons.
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby is supposed to return Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings from two games off as a precaution because of a hit shortly after he came back from a serious concussion. But Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma indicated Saturday this was not a sure thing. With the team having Sunday off, Crosby's status will not be known until Monday.
Once again, the mysterious nature of concussions is coming into play around hockey's greatest player. This is especially so now that HBO Canada is replaying the 24/7 series from last season about the Penguins and Washington Capitals to help promote its launch Wednesday of this year's series on the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers, which leads up to the Winter Classic.
Crosby is acknowledged to have sustained his concussion in the outdoors game from an accidental hit by Dave Steckel, who was with the Caps at the time. Crosby finished the game, played again on Jan. 5, took another blow to the head and was then diagnosed with a concussion which kept him out of the lineup until last month.
The last few minutes of the final episode of last year's 24/7 show just how difficult it is to tell if someone is concussed. There are several shots of Crosby sitting in the Penguins' dressing room after the game, long after Steckel's hit. He appears clear-eyed, uninjured and perfectly normal. Yet six days later, albeit after a second hit, he was diagnosed with a serious concussion.
FLYERS-RANGERS REALITY TV
The premiere of the latest 24/7 is Wednesday at 10 p.m. (Eastern) on HBO Canada and the movie network has a preview on its website.
There are no fireworks in the 12-minute video clip aside from Rangers general manager Glen Sather promising a win at a press conference in Philadelphia. But just as then-Capitals-coach Bruce Boudreau stole the series last season with his crackling personality and profanity, the easy prediction this year is that Rangers head coach John Tortorella will do the same.
It cannot be guaranteed the fiery Tortorella will come off as a good guy like Boudreau but he should easily upstage his dour counterpart with the Flyers, Peter Laviolette. The only thing Tortorella loves more than sparring with his players and the media is winning so there should be lots of confrontations for the cameras.
RICHARDS RETURNS TO BIG D
On Tuesday, New York Rangers centre Brad Richards will play his 800th NHL game. It just happens to be against the Dallas Stars, the team he dumped in favour of a free-agent contract with the Rangers.
The tension may not be quite as high since the game is in New York, but rest assured the Stars management team dearly wants a win.
SPECIAL TEAMS FOR STANLEY CUP WINNERS
With Year, PK-team penalty Killing, PP-power Play
PK - 84.4 per cent
PP - 11.4 per cent
PK - 83.3 per cent
PP - 22.5 per cent
PK - 83.3 per cent
PP - 20.6 per cent
PK - 85.7 per cent
PP - 18.9 per cent
PK - 86.8 per cent
PP - 15.2 per cent
PK - 85.4 per cent
PP - 24.0 per cent
PEOPLE TO WATCH THIS WEEK
Jaromir Jagr Needs one goal Tuesday for the Philadelphia Flyers to pass Brendan Shanahan for 11th place on the NHL's career list. They're tied at 656.
Joel Quenneville The Chicago Blackhawks coach went the team's game against the San Jose Sharks needing two wins to become the 10th NHL coach to hit 600 wins.
Jarome Iginla The Calgary Flames star needs five goals to hit 500 for his career.
All times Eastern