Strug­gling power play unit urged to just ‘breathe’

Maple Leafs us­ing lots of move­ment and their in­stincts to cre­ate chances

The London Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - LANCE HORNBY [email protected]

TORONTO Their power play lately looks like a nest of lab mice scur­ry­ing in a maze.

But the Maple Leafs in­sist that with pa­tience, they’ll find a way through.

The Leafs were a late Auston Matthews’ snipe away from an 0-for-6 night and likely loss against the Ve­gas Golden Knights on Thurs­day, while a slump of 3-for-33 since a two-goal game against Min­nesota nearly a month ago re­mains cause for con­cern.

With Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares head­lin­ing the first unit and William Ny­lan­der and new de­fence­man Tyson Bar­rie on the other, wasn’t this sup­posed to be the ham­mer for the Leafs of­fence? And wasn’t the hir­ing of Florida Pan­thers as­sis­tant Paul Mcfar­land ex­pected to re­flect that club’s suc­cess with the man ad­van­tage?

Head coach Mike Bab­cock and his staff needed the sec­ond in­ter­mis­sion and a TV time­out to fi­nally get the group set­tled Thurs­day night.

“Go out there and breathe,” was his ad­vice be­fore Matthews fi­nally scored to stop the home crowd’s belly­ach­ing in an even­tual 2-1 over­time win. “Just lighten up fel­las, do what you’re sup­posed to do.

“The big­gest thing is we’re get­ting to know each other. I’ve said it a num­ber of times — I don’t know if any­one be­lieves that — it’s eas­ier to play with peo­ple you know.”

The Leafs used to have a pen­chant for drop­ping pucks back to a rush­ing mem­ber of the unit to gain speed through the neu­tral zone to set up, but that now seems to in­volve a more com­pli­cated weave that throws off their pace and makes it easy for foes to dis­sect. Yet Marner de­nies they ’re dis­com­bob­u­lated, point­ing to how bet­ter puck move­ment is once they gain the blue-line.

“I thought we were get­ting good en­tries and that was a big goal. Mats has said it be­fore, just keep mov­ing it around with the skill we have. In the O-zone it’s go­ing to screw up a lot of PK’S. That’s what gave us our op­por­tu­nity there, you had guys run­ning all over the place. It helped hav­ing a guy with no stick (two Ve­gas play­ers lost lum­ber on that shift), but we were mov­ing the puck well and mov­ing bod­ies around.”

Matthews, the team leader with four power-play goals, said the Leafs even­tu­ally found a re­laxed mind­set

“In the third, we pretty much said, ‘What do you have to lose’? Let’s move around, get the penalty kill think­ing more. We did a re­ally good job of dif­fer­ent guys go­ing to dif­fer­ent ar­eas and re­act­ing, play­ing off our in­stincts. Not just drawn-up plays, but re­act­ing off one an­other. We spread them out a bit and were able to score.”

POINT AND CLICK

In his sec­ond game back af­ter miss­ing a few weeks with a bro­ken fin­ger, it was en­cour­ag­ing to see Tavares make seven shot at­tempts and have four hit the net, in­clud­ing the win­ning goal. An as­sist on the Matthews’ marker meant it was the cap­tain’s first multi-point game since Oct. 4.

“Tim­ing was a lit­tle bet­ter, han­dling the puck, all those things,” Tavares said. “The fin­ger is con­tin­u­ing to get bet­ter. If I’m out there, I ex­pect to play at a high level (not take it easy).”

MAK­ING WAIVES

For­ward Nic Pe­tan’s lat­est drop through NHL waivers saw him moved to the AHL Mar­lies on Fri­day, while de­fence­man Martin Mar­incin went un­claimed as well, but re­mains with the Leafs for now.

That still leaves Toronto one man to cut off the main ros­ter to al­low Zach Hy­man back un­der the salary cap, but with Bab­cock say­ing Hy­man won’t re­turn un­til next week, that de­ci­sion can be put off through the back-to-back games against Philadel­phia and Chicago.

Though it has not been a work of art, the Leafs are in po­si­tion for their first four-game win streak since Feb. 2-9 of last sea­son if they get past the Fly­ers at home on Satur­day for a third straight Sco­tia­bank Arena tri­umph.

“We’ve stood our ground, haven’t forced too many prob­lems for our­selves,” Marner said. “We’ve stayed above peo­ple, made it hard to get into our zone. (Against Ve­gas) we did a good job sup­port­ing each other in the slot.”

He and oth­ers have pointed to eight of the next 10 games be­ing away as badly needed bond­ing time.

“We re­ally haven’t gone on a road trip,” Marner said of sev­eral onegame jaunts. “We’re all ex­cited. The Hal­loween party def­i­nitely helped (ac­quaint a num­ber of newer Leafs). As our team gets more time out­side of the rink, we’ll be bet­ter.”

DAN HAMIL­TON/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Maple Leafs for­ward John Tavares fires the win­ning goal past Las Ve­gas Golden Knights goalie Malcolm Sub­ban in over­time at Sco­tia­bank Arena in Toronto on Thurs­day.

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