In their past three games, the Maple Leafs have been outshot by a combined total of 39-25 in the first period – including being outshot 14-7 by Boston Saturday. And as the Buds geared up to take on the Bruins again Monday night at Air Canada Centre, their slow starts – and in particular, their struggles in the faceoff circle – aren’t escaping the attention of head coach Mike Babcock or his players.
“Two games in a row the other team has absolutely dominated the first period faceoff circle,” Babcock said after the pre-game skate Monday. “We start out chasing and spend more time in ‘D’ zones and spend your energy in the ‘D’ zone instead of the ‘O’ zone. We talked a lot about that today – we've got to be better. To me, we’ve spent too much time in our own zone chasing the puck around instead of winning faceoffs, being in the offensive zone, wearing their team out. Offence will come from there. If you never ever play in the offensive zone, it's hard to have offence.”
“I don’t think we were happy with our start last game,” added goalie James Reimer, who had his five-game win streak snapped in Boston’s 2-0 victory Saturday at TD Center. “The other night, it was anybody’s game. We were in it right to the end, and against a good team like Boston, that’s what you want to do. So if we clean up a few things, (and have) a better start, hopefully we’ll have a different outcome.”
The Leafs held the Bruins off the scoresheet until there was 3:43 left in regulation time Saturday, providing another indication this is a more organized, committed Buds squad than we’ve seen in recent years. Now, instead of flailing at the opposition just about every night, Toronto is proving to be patient on the puck, savvy with their decision-making, and resilient if they give up a goal or two. Veterans – not just Leafs veterans, but players who’ve been in other organizations – can tell the difference.
“I think we’re more confident,” said defenceman Roman Polak. “It doesn’t matter if we’re losing…we’re still patient and on the same page. We’re not just running around, trying to do things on our own and trying to score right away. We’re more patient.”
“We’re building,” added Reimer, “and overall, we’re a better team and we’re playing a more honest style. I think we did enough things to keep us in the game and give us a chance to win.”
One of the Leafs who’s still keeping his nose to the grindstone is centre Nazem Kadri. The 25-year-old was held off the scoresheet against the Bruins, but he drew another penalty and is arguably the team’s most dynamic force with the puck. Although it’s a point of public debate that he hasn’t scored as much as he’s hoped to, Kadri is making defenders pay – and that’s something he’s always tried to do and will continue to do.
“It seems like every year, we’re talking about that,” Kadri said of the penalty-magnet narrative. “Obviously I like to draw penalties, I like to play on the power play and so do a lot of other guys. When I go out there, I just try and move my feet and have that elusiveness to not be so predictable. And hopefully I draw a couple penalties in doing that.”
Polak said Kadri’s ability to put the opposition in the penalty box comes from his speed and willingness to play in areas the other side doesn’t want him in.
“He’s going to the dirty areas to pick up the puck,” Polak said of Kadri. “And he’s good at it. When he’s trying to pick up the puck, he’s going to spin on you, and you’ve got nothing else but to hook him or hold him, and that’s why he’s drawing so many penalties.”
All things considered, Kadri said the team is still positive about its direction and competitiveness, but he added there’s an internal drive to cut down on opportunities for the opposition and put the pressure on the other side with a better start to the game. That focus starts Monday night, but will continue.
“We definitely got out-chanced (Saturday),” Kadri said. “Hopefully we’ll look for a bit of a better effort tonight, (generate) some more scoring chances and come out of the gate hot.”