Leafs penalty kill shows improvement in season opener

Fredrik Sjostrom
Fredrik Sjostrom ( )

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a 100 per cent penalty kill.

OK, it’s just one game, but the blue-and-white went a perfect 3-for-3 while playing a man down in their season opener, looking very unlike the Leafs of last year.

Toronto was strong on the penalty kill, putting pressure on the Montreal Canadiens to make moves, while never really allowing them to threaten.

The Leafs’ three penalties all came closely together in the second period as the team was hemmed in its own end.

Last season, Toronto was a measly 74.6 per cent on the penalty kill – good for last in the league. Combined with a 30th-place power play of 14 per cent, the club was disastrous on special teams.

If a rise in the standings is to occur this year, it would be largely dependent on improvement in those two areas.

On Wednesday, goaltender J.S. Giguere talked about the importance of special teams.

“We need a good power play and the penalty kill has to be in the top 10 if you ask me,” he told mapleleafs.com. “We need to be good defensively.”

He had more help in front of net on Thursday than last year’s starting goaltender, Vesa Toskala, while playing extremely well himself. He made several key stops throughout the game, including a huge save in the last minute.

According to head coach Ron Wilson, with this season’s new roster additions, there was no doubt his team’s penalty kill would get better.

“Now we have people who are willing to block shots and get in the way and follow the plan religiously,” Wilson told reporters on Wednesday. “Tim Brent and Mike Zigomanis are very good, [Fredrik] Sjostrom, when we picked him up, our penalty killing rapidly improved.

“There’s Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg, who won a Stanley Cup as one of [Chicago’s] primary penalty killers.”

Brent and Sjostrom were a penalty-killing pair Wilson relied on against the Canadiens, both logging nearly three minutes of ice time with a Leaf in the box.

Of course, one game does not mean the blue-and-white are all of a sudden top-notch penalty killers — but they are off to the right start.

Thursday’s game was a far cry from last year’s season opener, a 4-3 overtime loss to the same Montreal Canadiens.

In that contest, the Leafs were just 50 per cent on the penalty kill, allowing the Habs to go 2-for-4 on the power play.

The Leafs were up 3-2 deep in the third period when they allowed Montreal to tie it up while Toronto’s Mike Komisarek was in the box. It ended up being a bad start in a season full of defensive miscues while a man short.

On the other side of special teams, Toronto’s power play was unspectacular in its 2010-2011 debut, going 0-for-5.

While the Leafs stifled the Habs’ offense on the power play, so to did Montreal, and the Leafs ultimately couldn’t gather themselves and get anything going.