They stifled the Montreal Canadiens in a 4-1 win Saturday night, taking a fewer chances and making life easier on goalie Andrew Raycroft.
“More simple, not more conservative. A more simple game,” said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. “We don’t have to make a breakaway pass every time we touch the puck. Some much of our problems comes from turnovers when we’re trying to force plays. …
“I thought our defence looked faster, moved quicker, was more sure of themselves,” added Maurice. “And on the other hand I thought our forwards were more patient in our end of the ice, they weren’t running and chasing as much.”
Chip the puck out instead of trying to pass it through two opposing players. That’s going to be the mantra from here on in. The Leafs may be a little less entertaining in their final 32 games but it’s out of necessity. They rank 25th in the NHL in goal against per game and needed to tighten up coming out of the break.
“That was sort of a road game (Saturday night), you make sure you don’t give up anything 5-on-5 and when you get a power play you capitalize on it,” said captain Mats Sundin. “We need more of that.”
One the reasons Toronto has given up so many goals has been it’s 28th-ranked penalty kill. On Saturday the Leafs killed off six of seven Montreal power plays, and it was the difference in the game.
“If we want to be a playoff team we need our PK to be better,” said Sundin.
“We talked about it a lot,” he added. “I don’t think either our power play or penalty killing have been very good the last few weeks.
“We stressed it, worked on it in practice and got some results.”
A good penalty kill also goes a long way in helping out Raycroft, who has had an up-and-down season.
“When your penalty killing is good your goaltender has a lot better chance to be the difference in the game because 5-on-5 we haven’t given up a whole lot,” said Maurice.
Another focus is to stay out of the penalty box. The 8-2 loss at Pittsburgh before the break featured 10 Penguins power plays.
“When our hockey club was at its best we were fourth in penalties against, fourth fewest,” said Maurice. “Going into (Saturday’s) game we sat 23rd. We took an awful lot more penalties. And part of that is when you lose a big chunk of your lineup. you’re going to take more penalties. But we just started taking more and more penalties. …
“We got to be a good team early on this year because we were very disciplined. And we haven’t been as disciplined.”
The Leafs begin a five-game road trip Tuesday night at Carolina with other stops in New York (Rangers), Ottawa, St. Louis and Nashville. They can’t afford to stumble, sitting two points behind Pittsburgh for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“If you drop six or seven in a row, that’s it,” said Leafs winger Jeff O’Neill. “And that goes for a lot of teams in the East. It’s tough on us mentally. But we put ourselves in this position, and now we’re the guys who have to get it done.”