Be very afraid of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ power play

NHL analyst Luke Fox joins Shawn McKenzie ahead of the Leafs-Sabres tilt, to discuss the transformation of the Maple Leafs PP, going from 2nd worst to 2nd best in one half season.

Sixteen seconds.

That’s all a disciplined Buffalo Sabres team gave the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ power play over 60 minutes of action Tuesday night.

That’s all the Leafs needed to feed the handsy James van Riemsdyk the puck in his corner office with the tremendous view of the blue paint and watch him roof it at about an 80-degree angle for the game-winner.

When an opponent commits a penalty against Toronto in 2017, chances are he won’t have a full two minutes to sit and consider his wrongdoing.

After going one-for-one versus the Sabres, Toronto’s scorching power-play is now 10 for 19 over its last six games and operating at an insane (and unsustainable) 41.2 per cent success rate over its past 10 — far and away the deadliest in the league. All the more reason for Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers to feel fragile Thursday.

What a reversal, in a half-season overflowing with them: The Leafs’ man-advantage ranked second-worst overall in 2015-16 at 15.4 per cent. Now it’s flipped to second best, spiking to 24.4 per cent through 42 games. Only Columbus (25.2 per cent) is more efficient, and no team is better on the road. The Leafs convert an incredible 31.3 per cent of their PP chances away from the ACC.

“Their power play is dangerous,” Buffalo penalty killer Ryan O’Reilly admired, watching it on video, then suffering it firsthand. “Watch the way they play. They’re scoring goals, they work hard…. You can see why they’re having success.”

The butter-gloved van Riemsdyk — he of the NHL-best eight-game, 12-point streak — credits PP synergy for much of the team’s winning ways.

“We have some consistency in the units, and that helps develop chemistry to make those quick plays you need to make to score goals,” says van Riemsdyk, whose health is also a big contributor here.

“Everyone’s power-play strategy is pretty much the same: Shoot as many pucks as you can, get someone in front of the goalie and try to score on the rebound.”

Rebound hound Nazem Kadri ranks second league-wide only to Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn in power-play goals, and almost all nine of them have come banging home a loose puck in front.

“Nazy’s been real good in the middle for us, being able to get those rebounds. James is strong in front of the net. And Bozie and Marns can really shoot the puck and find guys,” says Auston Matthews, one of three Leafs rookies with at least 11 PP points.

“Special teams is obviously a big part of the game. It’s simple stuff: 5-on-4. So when you shoot the puck, you outnumber them at the net. Three guys around it, and you cash in on your opportunities.

“We’ve just been shooting the puck and creating odd-man situations down low. That Bozak-Marner-JVR power play, they’re just shooting pucks, creating rebounds and cashing in.”

Due to a healthy injection of skill — what coach Mike Babcock says is the sole reason for the improvement — the Leafs are cashing in at a historic pace. Consider:

• Toronto’s most efficient power play over a single season was 25.4 per cent in 1978-79. That’s within reach.

• Since 1967, Toronto has never led the league in power-play efficiency. Also within reach. (They finished second once, in 2005-06.)

• The Leafs’ current rate would mark their highest in season since in 1989-90 (23.3 per cent).

• Their forwards are currently on pace to record 155 PP points, which would be the highest total since 1987.

That’s what differentiates Toronto’s man-advantage from the NHL’s other elite attacks: a focus on forward depth and play below the hash marks. The top six point-generators on the Leafs’ special teams are all forwards.

Jake Gardiner, still Toronto’s No. 1 power-play defenceman, has fallen to seventh among the team’s point-getters with the extra man. You just don’t see that kind of disparity on any team.

You have to track back to the ’90s to find a season in which at least one of the top four point-getters on the Leafs’ power play was not a defenceman. In this century, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson all took a turn driving the man-advantage. Last year, Gardiner ranked second to Kadri in PP points.

Now assistant coach Jim Hiller’s unit is being driven almost exclusively by the men nearest to the net.

“A lot of it has to do with the personnel on both units. You got Mitchy on one half wall and Matthews and Willie on the other one, so there’s a bunch of threats,” Gardiner explains.

“Bozie’s playing the half wall now, too, and they’ve been successful lately. Anytime you’ve got two units going and a lot of threats on each one, it’s a good recipe.”

And, for the opposition, a recipe for disaster if they can’t keep out of the box.

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