SUNRISE, Fla. – Ron Hainsey’s assessment of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ special teams should only go down from here.
Two hours before puck drop Saturday night, one of the club’s most frequently used defenders with a man down said he was “not particularly satisfied” with the unit’s performance 32 games through the season.
“We know what the issues are and when we have breakdowns,” said Hainsey, avoiding particulars. “There’s plenty of things we can improve on. We’re continuing to work at it, but at this point it’s average at best.”
Now, after surrendering five goals through four games, the PK is officially below average.
“A lot of it is clears,” goaltender Frederik Andersen said. “We’ve got to be communicating better.”
Toronto rolled into Florida this weekend with 50 moms and the 15th-ranked kill (79.5 per cent), and that mediocre success rate took another hit in a 4-3 defeat by the Panthers, the Leafs’ fourth loss in five outings.
Special teams, indeed, were the plot of a film we might call Sad Moms 2 as the Maple Leafs failed to deliver a victory for their road-tripping mothers in either Sunshine State performance.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 16, 2018
Florida’s first strike served as foreshadowing for the game’s twin themes: Aleksander Barkov (a mellow 27:42 time on ice) is a monster, and odd-man situations matter.
The Panthers’ superior power play pounced when a wide-open Barkov finished off a slick passing sequence with a scant 3.6 seconds remaining in the first period, and again in the second when the piping-hot Jonathan Huberdeau scored. He now has 23 points in his past 13 games.
Both Florida power-play goals were the fruit of poor infractions on the Leafs’ part.
Barkov’s arrived from a Nazem Kadri too-many-men-on-the-ice minor for hopping the boards too early on a shift change, and Kasperi Kapanen was in the box for a neutral-zone hook when Huberdeau struck.
Kapanen had been all fired up after suffering a knee-on-knee hit from Troy Brouwer that arrived 0.93 seconds late but went unpenalized.
“I haven’t seen it, so it does me no good to comment,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “The league will look at it if it’s dirty, I guess. That’s what they’re paid to do.”
When the Leafs were granted their own power play and a chance to claw back into the game — a golden double-minor by Mackenzie Weegar compounded by a 10-minute misconduct for accidentally whacking linesman Jonny Murray as he glided to the bin — they came up empty.
Florida outshot Toronto 3-2 during the Leafs’ four-minute advantage. Yes, it felt like that kind of night.
“It looks like the guys are a little frustrated,” Babcock said. “Take a deep breath. They’re allowed to work hard against you. Take the play that’s given. You’re not making good decisions right now.”
Yes, that same fearsome, top-heavy Maple Leafs power-play that was fueled nightmares in October has managed all but one red lamp in its past 22 attempts.
It’s a problem.
“We just didn’t seem sharp. Our execution wasn’t very good. They blocked a lot of shots. They clogged it up in the middle,” John Tavares explained.
“We know teams are pre-scouting and kinda sense what we’re doing. We’re trying to make adjustments, but you don’t want to [change] too much either. You don’t want to get away too much from what makes you successful.
“You’d like to be on the better side of the special teams. It’s kinda the way it’s going for us right now. We’ve got to keep working and find a way to turn the tide.”
Like Thursday in Tampa, the Leafs generated the vast majority of high-danger scoring opportunities (18-4) but still flew away without a W.
Give the Cats credit.
The home side entered the night mired in a four-game skid and had grabbed sole possession of the Eastern Conference basement. Barkov’s top line had been publicly criticized for its slow play by coach Bob Boughner following Thursday’s clunker in Minnesota.
Seldom leaving the ice, Barkov & Co. started off much better in this one, going head-to-head with the reunited Hyman-Tavares-Marner line and limiting them until late — when Tavares tipped a Jake Gardiner point shot to break Roberto Luongo’s shutout bid and spark a mini dance party in the mothers’ suite.
Marner and Barkov exchanged goals, twice, during a thrilling, back-and-forth finish that ended in hats and rats and piles of overdue praise for the Panthers captain, who capped off his first career hat trick with a slick backhand deke in open ice.
This large framed photo hangs in the bowels of the Panthers’ rink. Pretty appropriate for how tonight’s game ended. pic.twitter.com/jxOtf5XPRL
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) December 16, 2018
“Their team was desperate. They hadn’t won in a while and played real desperate. Our desperation didn’t match our skill level,” Babcock said.
“Barkov was the best player on the ice by 10 miles.”
#FlaPanthers Bryan McCabe: "If [Barkov] did play in a big market like Toronto or something, they'd be talking about this guy like he's the next coming of Christ."
— Cats On The Prowl (@Cats0ntheprowl) February 23, 2018
“He probably doesn’t get enough recognition around the league for how good he is,” Tavares added. “He’s just a steady, smart two-way guy. Him and [Anze] Kopitar really remind me of the same type of player. He’s strong, he’s big, he’s smooth, he reads the play well, and he’s got great poise.”
If there is a silver lining for Leafs fans, it’s that Marner’s late push salvaged a point and Toronto needs only wait five days for revenge.
The Leafs head to New Jersey Tuesday, and the Panthers travel to Toronto Thursday for the rematch — and a fresh sheet to get the special teams trending upward.
“I don’t sit here and come walk out to this and say, ‘Jeez, the wheels are off here,’ ” Babcock said. “I don’t see that at all. We weren’t good enough, that’s it. Didn’t play hard enough.”