Game Day: Lost on the road
To say the Leafs have a tough week ahead is to engage in understatement.
If Paris Hilton memorized all of the world capitals, that would be "tough." If NDP leaders were to abduct Don Cherry at gunpoint and brainwash him into joining the party, that would be "tough."
What the Leafs face over the next 6 nights – four games against the Top 4 teams in the East – is a herculean challenge of the first order. And, realistically, this season hangs in the balance.
Tonight, it's Washington and Alexander Ovechkin. Wednesday: Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby. Thursday, the Flyers storm into the ACC. And 48 hours after they charter out, Montreal arrives.
These four teams have a combined 150 points.
Even more troubling for Leaf fans: Five of the next seven games are on the road.
Last season, a disaster by any reasonable account, the team's road record was 12-21-8. This season they are 2-7-1, which projects into an 8-29-4 finish. (Incidentally, 29 is the franchise record for most road losses in a season and it happened three times: 1987-1988, 1983-1984, 1972-1973.)
After winning their first two road games (October 13 in Pittsburgh, October 15 against the Rangers), the Leafs have plummeted into a 0-7-1 freefall.
Are they cutting costs by staying in rowdy youth hostels and not getting enough sleep? Are enemy trainers secretly lacing Leaf water bottles with performance-debilitating drugs?
I have no idea.
Last season, the longest losing streak on the road was five games, while the longest winless stretch reached seven. So if the Leafs lose tonight, in regulation or overtime, they will match a futility record that dates back to 1996-1997. (That season, the team suffered through both 9-game losing and winless streaks.)
Somehow, the team's overall problems in 2010 – goal scoring and special teams – are magnified on the road like bacteria under an electronc microscope. Whatever they do poorly at home they do dreadfully on the road.
Sweet Moses, they have managed to score only 16 goals as visitors – worst in the NHL by a wide margin. They have three power play goals on the road, which translates into a second-worst ranking behind only Dallas. (And two of those goals, remember, occurred in the first two games.)
Meanwhile, they've surrendered 12 power play goals on the road, which is fifth worst in the league. So over the past 8 road games, the Leafs have scored 1 power play goal in 35 chances while generously allowing the opposition to score 11 times on their 26 chances.
You don't need a slide ruler and tin foil hat to know these numbers are apocalyptic. If the Leafs don't turn things around on the road, their home record will warp and become moot.
So what can be done? This is me shrugging. But after analyzing the team's road games, here are 5 humble suggestions:
1. Putting grit in the spotlight. A crazy suggestion: Why not double-shift Colby Armstrong in the first period of every road game? As we witnessed Saturday at home, this guy looks like a choirboy but he has the disposition of a Rottweiler. He sets the tone. He also does something no other Leaf seems capable of doing: Getting under the skin of opposition players and throwing them off their games.
2. Aggression and puck pursuit. True, the Leafs have played five more games at home so far. But this alone does not mathematically account for the following discrepancies: They have stolen the puck 54 times on the road compared to 130 times at home. They have blocked 136 shots on the road compared to 256 shots at home. Without hunger and sacrifice there can be no road glory in the new NHL.
3. A meaner, angrier penalty kill. The Leafs have coughed up power play goals in every road game over this abysmal 0-7-1 streak. Why? Because they give up the blue line as if it's medicine and their penalty killers are Mother Teresa. They set up a box that collapses after two crisp opposition passes. The Leafs need to disrupt passing lanes without getting caught out of position. They need to chip it out without fantasizing about shorthanded goals. They need to scowl instead of sigh. They need to rub-out attackers along the boards. They need to clear-cut the crease in front of their goaltender. They need to make life miserable for the opposition.
4. Shoot and screen on the power play. Ron Wilson's move to put Kris Versteeg on the blue line has worked at home. But it has not worked on the road because Versteeg is not getting any quality shots and, even if he does, there is never anybody in front of the net to create traffic.
5. Hit anything that moves. The Leafs have doled out 108 fewer body checks on the road than at home. This is suicide. When powerhouse teams like Washington and Pittsburgh know they can pleasure skate for 60 minutes in their own rink, the results tend to be ugly.
PHOTO: MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS