By Namish Modi
Toronto’s domination in special teams played a big role in their 6-2 win over the Washington Capitals Saturday night.
The Maple Leafs, now 12-8-3 on the season, converted on three of four opportunities with the man advantage to break a dry spell dating back to their thumping of Boston on Nov. 12. Cody Franson, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul provided the power play goals, reviving a Leafs’ unit which had only one marker in their past 23 opportunities.
“It was nice to see our power play finally came to life and created some offense in the hockey game for us,“ said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle.
The Leafs lack of recent production with the man advantage prompted forward Nazem Kadri to be tried as a defenseman on the power play Saturday night. While the 24-year-old didn’t make a huge impact directly from the point, it was obvious there was change needed just to kick start the Leafs’ play in the situation.
“Yeah, that’s what happens when you change things up, you just look for different looks, try to create some energy towards the power play,” said Kadri. “I thought we were controlling the puck pretty well, sometimes simplifying is the best way to do it.”
Toronto, who tied for fifth place in power play percentage last season, has struggled out of the gate this season with a 18.5% success rate coming into Saturday’s game; 18th in the NHL.
“I think we did good things on our power play tonight, we were moving the puck, we were getting through to the net, “ said forward David Clarkson, who added an even strength marker. “Not every night you’re going to score on the power play, that’s today’s game. But I think tonight we did a good job on it and we’ve got to build from there and keep moving forward."
Toronto’s puck control 5-on-4 was much improved over the past few games as was evident by Bozak’s goal on Capitals netminder Braden Holtby late in the second period, making the game 5-1 and putting it out of reach for Washington. The goal came off a slick feed from Phil Kessel.
“I think we spread them out and we moved the puck around and it wasn’t really one-dimensional,” said Carlyle. “We worked from both sides of the ice and we’ve become predictable as of late, always wanted to work one side. If you noticed, the puck was changing sides and we were able to spread people out with it, and found an open guy back in front of the net”
Toronto’s potent power play wasn’t the only special team on display this night, as their penalty kill was also stellar keeping the league’s second best power play unit in check.
Troy Brouwer did score on the Caps’ first power-play of the night midway through the second cutting the lead to 3-1, but the Leafs did the job on two other two kills shutting down Washington. Star forward Alex Ovechkin was kept in check all night long, especially on the power play where he has six goals this season.
The Leafs’ penalty kill came into the game with an 84.2 percent rating, ninth in the NHL, a vast improvement over their 28th place finish last season, where the Leafs’ kill was 78.3 percent. Their performance last season came off the heels of a showing in 2012-13 where Toronto had an excellent penalty kill, second in the league, operating at 87.9 percent. Toronto made the playoffs that season.
“Goaltending is the main thing, our goalies have been great on it. Look at guys like Leo Komarov and Daniel Winnik, who do the bulk work on the penalty kill,” said Bozak. “They’re guys that work hard, they block shots, they’re guys that will out work the opponent whenever they get the chance, so, obviously its not fun to play against guys like that, and they’re doing a great job”
Recent American League call up Korbinian Holzer also contributed in penalty kill situations and appears to be gaining the trust of Carlyle only two games into his recent stint with the big club. The 26-year-old has been stellar in all situations thus far.
“Just for me, blocking a shot is like scoring a goal. So, doesn’t matter who blocks the shot, if you sacrifice the body it’s as huge as scoring a goal or setting up a big goal, “ said Holzer. “We got a lot of good penalty killers in here, it’s just a great unit all around, and obviously great goaltending, you need that.”