The Maple Leafs had a three-game win streak ended Tuesday in a 7-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings - a team that's won two Stanley Cup championships in the past five years - and one of the main things that stuck out was L.A.'s success in using the rink boards to their advantage. The veteran-laden Kings had little-to-no use for the middle areas of the ice; they cycled the puck constantly in Toronto's zone until one of their players gained a strong position near Toronto's net, and even when they were breaking up the ice on a rush with the puck, they gravitated toward the boards and utilized their size and strength to maintain possession and dictate the play.
It may not be the most fan-friendly strategy, but make no mistake - winning through using the boards is something that NHL coaches are more than happy to employ. And adjusting to the calibre of play along the walls presents a sizeable challenge to younger NHLers accustomed to having free reign with the puck.
"It's something that when you get to the pro level you really appreciate," Leafs defenceman Connor Carrick said after practice Monday at Toronto's west-end training facility. "You see guys that are really just masterful at it. You get a lot of younger players who've played with the puck in open ice; they've been centres or D-men who've kind of carried the load and not forced to play along the wall. We've got a lot of young guys, and that wall play is something we're all trying to work on."
"It changes at every level," head coach Mike Babcock said prior to the Kings game in regard to play along the walls. "As the players get bigger and better, they're way better on the puck and they understand how hard it is to get it back, so they want to have it. Obviously, L.A.'s plan is to wear you down and make you make mistakes, and we have to do the same to them."
Of course, the Kings are an experienced group that has weathered many playoff storms, and L.A.'s players have learned each other's tendencies, making boards play a little more instinctual and a little easier. But although Toronto has a large number of of young players who don't enjoy the benefits of familiarity, they recognize their challenge is to match the intensity levels of teams like the Kings.
Otherwise, they'll be chasing the game and merely reacting to the movements of their opponents. And teams that aren't proactive with the puck usually don't win enough to get themselves into a playoff spot.
"As a team we want to be able to hold onto the puck and create plays," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "In order to do that, you've got to be able to play along the walls, handle the puck and not give it up. The Kings are really good at that."
Despite the tough loss to the Kings on Tuesday, the Leafs understand they're still in the early stages of a learning process at the NHL level, and mistakes are going to be part of that process. The task at hand now is to take those lessons to heart, make the changes necessary to growth, and implement them at the nearest opportunity. An Leafs fans and team management should be heartened by the fact Toronto's players are more than willing to do exactly that.
"It's something that, I don't know if it's a trend, or if it's just something I've really been introduced to as a young guy the last couple years," Carrick said of the importance of boards play. "Being good at it can really save you a lot of time, save you from getting hit a lot, save you from playing in your own end, and those are all good things."