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Power-play struggles continue to plague Leafs

by Jeremy Sandler
TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs have a simple problem with a simple solution that is nevertheless proving difficult to fix.

Even with three wins in their last four games heading into Saturday night's matchup with the last overall Edmonton Oilers, the NHL's 29th-ranked team had gone one day short of a calendar month without a power-play goal.

Granted, the NHL's extended break for the Olympics has given Toronto's power-play power outage a lengthier duration in terms of days, but there is no glossing over an 0-for-30 run that stretches over their last eight games.

"Sometimes you get on a dry spell like this and you make some good plays and it doesn't go in," coach Ron Wilson said following Saturday's morning skate. "We probably need more traffic and find a way for point men to get some shots through."

It's a concise, easily explainable plan his players are also voicing as the solution.

"I think we have to move the puck a little bit faster and get some bodies in front of the net," said defenseman Tomas Kaberle, Toronto's leader in points with 46 and power-play points with 24. "I thought we haven't been shooting a lot lately and if you don't shoot, you don't score."

Not surprisingly given Toronto's power-play struggles, the Czech Olympian Kaberle has gone seven games without registering a point.

That's an identical drought to the one Kaberle's occasional blue line partner on the power play, Dion Phaneuf, is battling through.

"The biggest thing is getting pucks to the net with traffic," Phaneuf said. "When the puck's not going in, I think that's the biggest thing in getting back to simplicity is getting pucks to the net, as many as you can with traffic, and they'll start to go in."

Phaneuf's arrival from Calgary in a Jan. 31 seven-player trade with the Flames was supposed to spark Toronto's League-worst power play.

The team pitched the 24-year-old's quick release of a 100 mph-plus bazooka from the point as a great way to get rebounds, and hopefully goals.

Initially, it worked to perfection as Toronto's drastically rebuilt roster potted five goals in 17 chances with the man advantage following Phaneuf's arrival.

"It worked the first few games, our plan was fine," said Wilson. "We've happened to hit a dry spell."

The recent streak of futility by Wilson's crew has the Maple Leafs down to a 15.4 percent success rate on the season, ahead of only the Phoenix Coyotes' 14.7 percent mark.

Part of the problem is roster upheaval on a club being rebuilt by general manager Brian Burke.

Of the six forwards with at least two power-play goals for the Maple Leafs this season, five are now plying their trade in NHL outposts other than Toronto.

Among the holdovers still skating in blue and white, Phil Kessel leads the way with six power-play goals while defenseman Francois Beauchemin has four and Kaberle has three.

That means youngsters are getting the chance to work the power play up front.

Some of the beneficiaries like Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski have a season or so of NHL experience, but there are also a gaggle of rookies including Tyler Bozak, Luca Caputi, Christian Hanson and Viktor Stalberg getting auditions.

"That's for sure," said Stalberg, the owner of two goals and an assist in Toronto's last two games who is still waiting to score his first power-play goal. "It takes some time to find a combination that works well out there."

That said, the 24-year-old from Stockholm said everyone knows what they have to do to make it work.

It's simple. And difficult.

"We've got to simplify things a little bit and make sure we get a lot of pucks to the net, that's kind of how you jumpstart a power play," he said. "You've got to make sure we keep working hard and make sure you win all the battles. It's a privilege to be on the power play and you've just got to make sure you take advantage when you're out there."

Jeremy Sandler covers sports for the National Post newspaper in Toronto

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