TORONTO — An optimist would find comfort in the fact that the referees typically start hiding their whistles by the time the playoffs arrive.
Because at this stage, the only thing that could have the Toronto Maple Leafs feeling good about their power play is the prospect of having fewer of them.
On Thursday, the punchless PP was the main culprit for a 5-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets — bringing a nagging itch to the surface. They’ve been able to string together a lot of wins while going 1-for-42 with the man advantage since March 9 because of excellent results at even strength.
But there are going to be times where you can’t outskate that level of futility. In tight games against quality opponents, special teams are often the difference.
“I think it’s quite obvious the impact that the power play could have had on the game today and [we] failed to get it done,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
They have tried a little bit of everything while scoring one power-play goal in the last 17 games. Different personnel, different alignments, two balanced units, one grouping of all-stars. At one point recently, Keefe told reporters that the coaching staff decided to stop changing anything — only to see injuries and absences force more change.
We’ve reached the stage where everyone is openly admitting that the problem has grown so large it rests between the ears of the team’s collective conscience. It’s become an issue of confidence.
“I’d say about 100 per cent,” Keefe said earlier this week.
“It didn’t give us much momentum tonight,” said captain John Tavares after the loss to Winnipeg narrowed his team’s North Division lead to three points.
The Leafs actually liked their start against the Jets. They pulled ahead 1-0 on an early Alex Galchenyuk goal and continued pushing against an opponent playing for the second straight night, drawing two minor penalties in quick succession.
Assistant coach Manny Malhotra, who is responsible for overseeing power-play duties, gathered players at the bench with a white board during a timeout to map out the 5-on-3 to follow. Then Winnipeg got two quick clears, Galchenyuk rang a shot off the post and the Leafs couldn’t piece together enough control to create real pressure.
Instead of grabbing a 2-0 lead, Toronto saw the rope slip away quickly — starting with a defensive zone faceoff loss to start a Winnipeg power play and a Nikolaj Ehlers shot that trickled through Jack Campbell. That was followed by two more quick strikes in transition, from Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele, and the Jets had delivered a blow to Toronto’s psyche.
“The 5-on-3, our power play in general, and the fact that they win a faceoff on their power play and score immediately. That really was tough on us,” Keefe said. “Obviously, we didn’t respond well to that. We just lost structure to their best players. Essentially two breakaways, or a 2-on-1 and a breakaway, to their best people. Those are freebies, freebies that they didn’t give us.
“That, ultimately, is the difference in the game.”
The Leafs missed on two additional power-play chances — one to start the third period while trailing 3-2 and the other shortly after some miscommunication between Mitch Marner and David Rittich saw Ehlers make it 4-2.
A goal in either case could have produced a different result on a night where Toronto controlled 57 per cent of the shot attempts and 54 per cent of the expected goals at evens.
“I mean you can just sense that even on the bench, the guys who aren’t out there [on the power play], every shot, every time the puck’s in and around the net the guys are looking for it to fall,” Keefe said. “The guys that are out there right now are squeezing it, they’re overthinking it, but that’s where we’re at and that’s what we’ve done to ourselves here so we’ve got to find our way out of it.”
The job was made tougher by the fact Auston Matthews sat out with a hand/wrist issue while William Nylander finished up his final day in COVID Protocol, but the underlying problems predate those absences.
What has to make this stretch so frustrating is how dramatically the team’s fortunes have shifted. The Leafs were the NHL’s most proficient power-play team to start the season — making good on 43.3 per cent of opportunities while pounding home 13 goals with the man advantage through 10 games.
They’ve now slipped to 11th overall in the league at 21.8 per cent and could soon fall below the middle of the pack if they don’t find a way to stop taking on water.
“Power play’s a big part of winning hockey games,” Marner said. “You know we’ve been talking about it for a long time now. We’ve got  games left until playoffs and it can win a lot of big games for you, so we’ve got to make sure we tune up … and just make sure we do the right things.
“Eventually, we’ll get rewarded.”
That’s the hope, anyways.