By DAVID SHOALTS
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
TORONTO -- When it comes to beating the neutral-zone trap, the nemesis of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mike Babcock likens it to the traffic around the team's arena.
"It's like going to the ACC at 5 o'clock," the Leafs head coach said after Tuesday's practice. "There's traffic. But the more you go there at 5 o'clock, the more you know which lane is open and which street to go on and you get to figure it out."
Using the perpetual nightmare that is Toronto's congestion as a metaphor for the NHL's version of dystopia, the neutral-zone trap, was rather clever of Babcock. However, in the downtown area that includes the Air Canada Centre at Bay Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, there are no lanes or streets that offer any kind of escape at 5 o'clock on any weekday afternoon. Hence Babcock's interrogator wondered if the coach walks to the rink from his downtown condo rather than going by car and taking the chance he will miss the opening faceoff.
"No, I drive. And the last block takes me a half hour," Babcock insisted. "The reality of the situation is it's the same principle. You've got to find your way through it.
"If you're stubborn and you turn pucks over it hurts you. If you stay patient and you do things right you end up spending a lot of time in the o-zone and you have a lot of fun."
The trouble is, despite the Leafs' gaudy 14-8 record at the regular-season's quarter-pole, plus-13 goal-differential and second-place standing in the Eastern Conference, there are teams that give them fits. All of those teams have one thing in common - they get lots of bodies into the neutral zone to choke off the Leafs' attack before it can get rolling into the offensive zone.
Some of those teams are not as good as the Leafs. Such as the Arizona Coyotes, who beat them with that tactic and outplayed them on special teams on Monday night, or the Carolina Hurricanes, who throttled the Leafs in late October. The Leafs will meet the Canes again Friday night on a two-game southern trip that starts with the Florida Panthers on Wednesday. The Panthers also play a similar style.
The best way to beat the trap, to find your way among all those bodies between the bluelines, is with speed and puck movement.
The Leafs have both in abundance, but it often does not translate to an easy path to the promised land where all that fun can be found.
A lot of the Leafs' trouble in that regard was masked during their recent six-game winning streak by goaltender Frederik Andersen. His play was so sublime a lot of mistakes were covered up.
The words Babcock used, stubborn and patient, are key to the Leafs' woes in the neutral zone. Too often, those quick, talented youngsters insist on using their speed and stickhandling skills to try to get through a crowd by themselves. But trying to carry the puck past two NHL opponents rarely pays off and they usually end up with it.
It takes young players an indefinite period of time to learn the patience to help each other through traffic. Some nights they have it and other nights they don't, which led to some pointed criticism for the likes of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander after the loss to the Coyotes.
"A lot of the guys that have been driving us, the young skill guys, not today," Babcock said after the 4-1 loss on Monday night. "They weren't here today."
Babcock is not one to issue outbursts in the wake of a loss. A message was delivered to the guilty parties, although Matthews, who was playing in his second game back from an injury, admitted his play was decidedly lacking.
Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, a grizzled veteran by Leaf standards at 27, says the Leafs are getting a handle on playing against such defensive systems as well as improving their own defensive play.
"That happens every year throughout the first 10, 20 games, [play] is a little more open," he said.
"Now it's becoming second-nature, guys are able to adapt to systems a little bit quicker. So that's nothing out of the ordinary.
"That's how you're going to win now, especially if you're having trouble scoring. You've got to play good defensively and that translates into good offensive opportunities as well."
Babcock agrees. He just thinks it should happen more consistently.
"I think we've got a pretty good team that plays pretty well," he said.
"But the other team, when they get an opportunity, clogs up the neutral zone. What do you think they're saying about us? The same thing.
"So who does it best and who stays patient and who gets through it?"
Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews skates the puck up the ice during Monday's 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes.
NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS