This is Mike Babcock’s third playoff season coaching the Maple Leafs – the third straight year in which the Leafs have had bottom-of-the-league penalty killing.
That’s not impressive for the much heralded head coach, having these kind of unfortunate results year after year when it matters most.
That’s not a good look for Babcock, not a good look for his assistant D. J. Smith, who has head coaching aspirations in the National Hockey League but whose job description with the Leafs includes operating the penalty kill.
And that’s not good enough for a Leafs team which is close enough to the Boston Bruins through four games to win the series, just not equipped enough if they can’t find a way in which to handle the Boston man-advantage situation.
When asked what was wrong with the Leafs play on the penalty kill, Frederik Anderson said: “I don’t know. I haven’t looked at that.”
Normally, there is a connection between crummy penalty killing and crummy goaltending – but Andersen has had an excellent series against the Bruins. Been the Leafs best player. Structurally, though, down a man the Leafs don’t appear to have any reasonable answer through the first four games – more importantly Wednesday night with the Leafs having a 2-1 lead in the series and the grand opportunity to go up two games.
An opportunity now blown as the series heads back to Boston for Game 5.
In Game 4, Boston scored a first-period power-play goal and a second-period power-play goal and really that had the Leafs playing catchup all night long. Two power-play goals. They only had two power plays.
After four games, Boston now has five power-play goals, at least one in every game. Toronto has killed penalties at a fire-the-coach rate of 54.5%. You need 80% or more to get into law school, get into medical school, get to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
At below 60%, you’re getting ready to pack your bags and head home. That’s frankly inexcusable.
Columbus swept Tampa Bay out of the playoffs in a remarkable and unexpected way in Round 1. The Blue Jackets finished with 83.3% in the round on the PK, the only power-play goals coming in Game 4 against Columbus.
Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders, who swept the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the first round, killed at 90.9% in their four victories.
The Golden Knights of Vegas, close to another appearance in the second round, are 85% leading San Jose in their series.
The Leafs are at 54.5% on the PK, a combined playoff three-year total of 65.3%. If general manager Kyle Dubas isn’t asking questions about this today, he should be.
And give the Bruins credit for this – that’s a top-tier power play they have. The front line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak is beyond elite and a challenge at the best of times. A challenge means 70% maybe 75% – something that would rank near the bottom of the league during the season.
But 54.5% – that’s horrible.
It’s especially horrible considering how much the Leafs have scouted the Bruins, how much the Bruins have scouted the Leafs, and how there shouldn’t be surprises of this magnitude this late in a first-round series.
Babcock admitted post-game Wednesday that the Leafs execution, while down a man, has not been up to speed, although he seemed to have no answer for why this is a problem this year after being a problem last year after being a problem the year before that. The Leafs won’t practice Thursday. They will meet and leave for Boston late in the day. Undoubtedly they will have some power-play video time for their penalty kill people. They can’t continue this way to have any chance to stay in the series.
One problem the Leafs have, according to NHL scouts assigned to the game, is their defence with the man short. They don’t have a natural penalty killer on the back end. They don’t have a large player with a long stick who takes up space the way Zdeno Chara takes up space. They have Ron Hainsey, capable but somewhat immobile. They have Nikita Zaitsev, who struggles in the area. Those, along with Jake Muzzin, are Babcock’s defencemen of choice down a man. The group is better than they’ve been in this series. Just not even close to playoff ready.
The Boston coach, the impressive Bruce Cassidy, says there is nothing on the Leafs power play or penalty killing he hasn’t seen before. The Bruins are succeeding in that way, even after giving up four goals in the 6-4 defeat. Leafs scored once with the man advantage. The Leafs drew just three penalties.
They lost the special teams games to Washington the first time Babcock coached them in the playoffs, lost it last year to Boston, have embarrassing numbers now. They need to alter structure or players or both with the series now tied at two games each. They need to do it fast.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019