Leafs Can’t Allow ‘Big Chances’ Versus Penguins
If the Maple Leafs want to be the Penguins one day, they already mastered a couple of vital steps.
Be bad enough for long enough that you get high draft picks, including first overall in a lottery. Secondly, generate as many shots as possible, like the 33.4 a game that ranked them second in the league behind Pittsburgh as of Friday afternoon.
But that’s where the similarities end between the polished Pens, who have 25 more goals and nine more wins prior to facing the Kings and the losing Leafs, who’ve blown leads and been on the wrong side of seven overtime results, five by shootouts.
Saturday will be another chance to take notes when Sidney Crosby and Co. are in town, though the Leafs can get two points if they stick to the script on offence.
Nazem Kadri, who’ll be trying to cover NHL goal leader Crosby, took heart about the shot stats, but only to a degree.
“I don’t think our game plan is to come out, have a shootout and trade chances with the (Stanley Cup champions),” Kadri said. “That’s not going to work in our favour. We have to be patient, we have to be defensively in sync and ready to score when we have some consistency.
“There aren’t a whole lot of differences between us. Both teams play a similar style. It’s just going to be who plays better defensively and who has the most structure.”
From his position, goalie Frederik Andersen says his teammates look quite impressive as they weave around opposing defences and many are effective cyclists down low. But he added their mistakes are often whoppers, such as the freebies Arizona Coyotes could have cashed on Thursday.
“We play well with the puck, we have to learn better to play without it,” said Andersen, sounding just like coach Mike Babcock. “We didn’t give them anything (Thursday) night, other than the ones we handed to them. That’s the biggest lesson to take from that game (a 3-2 shootout loss). We dominated, but gave up big chances when we got impatient. We get the puck, cycle it well, then suddenly we give up breakaways.
“We have to stick with it, change (lines) well and keep coming at them. We’ll score more and like the result better.”
In the third period and overtime, Andersen and Mike Smith made 32 combined saves and gave the crowd its money’s worth. Then came the dastardly shootout, Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner off the post, James van Riemsdyk the crossbar. Two Coyotes were stopped before ex-Leaf Peter Holland fooled Andersen.
It’s encouraging the Leafs are staying closer in games after last year’s 30th-place finish, but shootout defeats are like death by a thousand cuts.
Babcock chose to forego practising it on Friday or anything on-ice for that matter. He wanted his team to save energy for the Pens, but planned to re-visit the breakaway drill on Saturday morning.
“When things are going really good, you can practice the shootout all the time,” Babcock said. “It’s reinforcement, it feels good. But when it doesn’t go good, you’re more careful about it.
“We’ve tried to build it into our practice. We have to find a way to win the shootout, because confidence comes from that.”
The most frequent names Babcock calls for shootouts include Bozak and van Riemsdyk and lately, creative kids such as Marner. He and the assistants have crunched the numbers beforehand and have a list handy.
“It’s pretty straightforward, it’s who has scored and who hasn’t,” Babcock said. “(Assistant coach Andrew Brewer) is in charge of all that. He presents it to us, we talk about who is going well and when it doesn’t go, you try and change.”
Kadri and leading scorer Auston Matthews are names that should get in there soon if the Leafs keep coming up dry.
“Sometimes guys that have scored don’t score and then they get hot again,” Babcock said of trying to make the right call. “But scoring is contagious. We beat their goalie (Smith) three times (Thursday) night and didn’t score once.”
Van Riemsdyk said the near match in shot numbers with Pittsburgh shows is a “very fine line between between winning and losing. We’re doing a lot of good things. Once that (goal) light switch goes on, it’s going to be pretty good for us.”
It had better happen soon.
The Sidney Crosby Shock and Awe tour comes back to the ACC on Saturday.
Just a few months after hoisting the Stanley Cup, Pittsburgh’s captain began this season by leading Canada to the World Cup and copping tournament MVP honours. After the Pens’ first 30 games, he hasn’t quite matched Connor McDavid’s points’ pace, but was still the first man to reach 20 goals.
“To be elite like he is, year in and year out, you have to have an elite drive train and passion for the game,” said Leafs’ Mike Babcock, Crosby’s coach in September. “He has done it a long period of time now and might be at the highest level he has ever been. The World Cup, that’s the best I’d ever seen him.
“He’s a way better all around player than he used to be; he’s strong, smarter than he’s ever been, which comes from experience. And he’s playing on a really good team, might be the best since the previous Cup team he was on.”
The coverage assignment on Saturday likely goes to Nazem Kadri. Crosby already has 53 points in 35 career games against Toronto and of course there’s the Hockey Night In Canada spotlight.
“Covering Sid, he’s tenacious, persistent, good down low, especially on his edges,” Kadri said. “He can shake you off well, so you kind of have to jockey him a little bit and give him the respect he deserves.
“He’s a great player, you have to be hard on him and I plan to do so (Saturday).”