TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs’ most baffling problem just got worse.
When the Leafs dragged their shaky power play into the post-season, they spoke of a clean slate, a fresh chance to forget all those missed power-play opportunities and build anew.
Why couldn’t a dominant 5-on-5 team be at least averagely dangerous at 5-on-4?
So, the Leafs devoted hours of practice and meeting time in the six-day-long lead-up to their Montreal series practising, examining and reconfiguring their power play.
In tight-checking playoff games, facing what appears to be a vintage version of Carey Price, they need it to be a difference-maker.
And in Game 1, it was. To their detriment.
With the contest knotted at one goal apiece in the latter half of the third, that next-goal-wins feeling was in the Scotiabank Arena air.
Toronto, gaining the man advantage, was gifted a chance to end it.
Joe Thornton fumbled an Auston Matthews entry pass at the blue line. Rasmus Sandin — suddenly promoted to PP1 and making his playoff debut — couldn’t track down the speedy Paul Byron. And Jack Campbell, attempting a poke check, got surprised by Byron’s sprawling, game-winning flip.
Plenty of blame to share on the sequence, which has underscored a serious issue.
Toronto’s power play went 0-for-4 with a goal allowed in a game ultimately decided by special teams.
The Leafs are now tied with Washington for most shorthanded goals allowed (eight) in 2021.
Since March 11, the Maple Leafs’ power play has surrendered more goals (six) than it has scored (five). They entered the playoffs with the worst net PP percentage (15.5) of the Sweet 16, and it’s gotten worse.
"Decline the penalty" jokes fly around the Twittersphere whenever the Kanye West’s "Power" pumps through the speakers and the Leafs’ once-mighty 5-on-4 troops glide to the faceoff circle.
"I just think I would’ve addressed it earlier than this week, as a coach. It’s been going bad for a couple months now — two and a half months. I would’ve made my changes a lot sooner than now. This is the first time ever I’m contradicting what they’re doing," former and aspiring NHL coach Bruce Boudreau told Lead Off this week.
"It’s been an ongoing problem that would’ve been great if you could’ve fixed it a month ago."
With captain John Tavares out indefinitely and the second wave of 5-on-5 offence weakened in the process, cashing in on power plays takes on increased importance. But the climb back to respectable, let alone fearful, gets that much more challenging without Tavares, Toronto’s second-best power-play producer (six goals, six assists).
The focal point, Matthews, scored 10 power-play goals this season. William Nylander, the next most prolific option, had four. Net-front guys Wayne Simmonds and Zach Hyman scored three apiece. No one else scored more than once on the PP all season.
Mitch Marner, who distributes from the opposite flank as Matthews, did not score a power-play goal. Yet he remains in a shooter’s circle.
Everyone knows who the triggerman is.
"I think just fighting through it, moving our feet. We're going to draw penalties more and more and just continue to get those looks," said Matthews, who led all shooters with eight pucks on Price, three on the PP.
"Other than the power-play goal against, I thought the power play was pretty good last night. We got some really good chances, a couple posts, but I thought we moved it around pretty well and got some good looks.
"It's on us to try to capitalize on those opportunities, but I think we just want to keep shooting, keep creating those chances. In our minds, it's good to go in eventually."
The Maple Leafs did not practise special teams during their abbreviated practice Friday, but the idea of deploying two balanced units should be out the window with Tavares unavailable.
And we saw how quickly coach Sheldon Keefe abandoned his Sandin experiment after Byron outraced the rookie. During the Leafs’ final power play, Morgan Rielly resumed quarterbacking duties.
"The special teams really broke up the game a lot. Not, obviously, what you expected in a playoff game, but you’ve got to adjust," Keefe said. "I thought our penalty kill [5-for-5] did a really good job. I thought our power play early in the game was really good, looked really dangerous. But we needed one to go in for us here, obviously. It’s a big difference in the game."
Moral victories won’t cut it.
And whether it’s how quickly and purposefully the Leafs don’t move the puck around the zone or how intensely they try to retrieve loose pucks on the man-advantage, there is a level of confidence and urgency that doesn’t measure up to the elite 5-on-4 playoffs units we’re seeing in Tampa or Colorado.
"Whether it’s 5-on-5 or on our power play, we gotta find a way to get it over the line," Keefe said. "Those guys just gotta stay with the process and in fact find another level because, clearly, what any of us did last night wasn't good enough. We've got to be better."