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Leafs look to improve special teams in search for points

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs



As they focus on ending a five-game losing streak, the Maple Leafs convened at their practice facility knowing that, no matter who they play, they’re going to face an opponent with all sorts of pressure to win. To wit: on Tuesday, Toronto travels to Philadelphia to take on a Flyers team that’s just two points back of the final wild card playoff position; on Thursday, the Buds host a Carolina Hurricanes squad currently tied with Philly in the standings; and on Saturday, the Montreal Canadiens come to Air Canada Centre desperately seeking to stop a prolonged slump that’s bumped them from the top of the Atlantic Division to the final wild card spot.

In the modern-day NHL, parity among teams and the League’s point system ensures there are no easy games. And Leafs players are well-aware they’ll need to be better if they’re to get back on the right track.

“We’ve got to get a win here quick and get our confidence back,” said veteran centre Tyler Bozak, who had an assist in Toronto’s 3-2 loss to the Bruins in Boston Saturday. “It’s tough to win, and anyone can beat anyone. This time of the year, wins are really important, and you want to get in the race and in the (post-season) hunt. We’re trying to catch a lot of teams here, so we want to win these big games we have coming up before the (All-Star) break.”

The Leafs played decently-enough Saturday, but lost on a Brad Marchand goal with 47 seconds left in the third period. Although there were positives for them to build off of, the late-game collapse left a bitter taste in their mouths, and one that still hadn’t washed out by Monday morning.

“We’re happy with the way we competed,” said defenceman Morgan Rielly. “We worked hard, that’s not in question. We did some things we liked, but turnovers cost us, we didn’t capitalize on the power play, they out-chanced us and they won the game. We worked hard all night, we played good, we got our chances, and to lose in the last minute always sucks.”

One of the main issues for Leafs players and head coach Mike Babcock is the state of the franchise’s special teams. Toronto’s power play has been struggling mightily (0-for-14 in their past four games) and their penalty kill hasn’t been much better. With that in mind, Babcock was trying different special teams combinations in practice Monday, including putting centre Nazem Kadri on the PK. It’s an idea and role Babcock had in mind for the 25-year-old for next season, but he’s moving up the timeline because the situation calls for it.

“We just think he’s a guy who could be a penalty-killer,” Babcock said of Kadri. “He’s brave, he’s smart, I don’t think he’ll have any issue (with the role) whatsoever. It’s just getting the time.”

Babcock, who revealed after practice James Reimer will get the start in net Tuesday against the Flyers, noted his team’s most recent defeat was tough to take, but it wasn’t an undeserved loss for the Leafs.

“If you go through the whole game, they were better than we were, start to finish,” Babcock said of the Bruins. “You’d like to get points in a game like that, because you’re right there at the end. But if you go through who played better and who didn’t, the right team won. So we’ve got to make sure we’re on the right end of how we play and what we do, and in the end, the score will look after itself.”

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