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Winning Play: How Toronto’s power play created seams

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Nov 28, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward John Tavares (cener of huddle) celebrates his first goal of the game against San Jose Sharks goaltender Aaron Dell (30) during the first period at Scotiabank Arena.  John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

On their last shift, the San Jose Sharks penalty kill finally got it right.

No, seriously.

This minute, admittedly against the Toronto Maple Leafs’ second power play unit, featured all the hallmarks of a solid Sharks’ kill: Casual pressure up the ice, suffocating pressure in zone. In particular, Barclay Goodrow (23) and Melker Karlsson (68) hounded the puck relentlessly.

This aggressive approach is designed to force mistakes. And San Jose’s penalty kill, up to giving up three power play goals in a 5-3 loss to Toronto, was the league’s best.

But NHL-best or not, the fact of the matter is, there are ways to exploit any penalty kill.

So why did the Leafs carve up the Sharks last night?

During the playoffs, Jonathan Marchessault of the Vegas Golden Knights noted, on how to withstand the aggressive San Jose penalty kill, “It’s possession before position. [Possession] is more important.”

Basically, don’t lose the puck. Use quick, crisp and often short passes to probe for a weakness.

Colin Miller added, “Generally, if you can get that one pass through the seam, you can beat the pressure.”

Toronto did all that and more last night.

Nine consecutive passes, mostly pitch-and-catch between Auston Matthews (34) and Morgan Rielly (44), led to John Tavares’s (91) game-opening strike. It was Mitch Marner’s (16) trademark high-to-low slap pass that eventually exploited the seam:

“He just sells it so well. Sells it with his body positioning and his eyes,” remarked an NHL scout. “Gets everyone to bite, not just the goalie.”

A few minutes later, seven straight passes preceded this Matthews’s snipe:

Behind the net, Tavares stretched out the Sharks’ kill unit, going one wall to Matthews and the other wall to Marner. Rielly lured Logan Couture (39) toward him and away from Matthews, before connecting with the wide-open San Ramon native.

Finally, as the song goes, ain’t no fun if my second unit can’t have none:

Seven consecutive touches for the Maple Leafs’ second power play group, highlighted by Jake Gardiner (51) changing his angle to get the puck clean through the center lane to Andreas Johnsson (18), then Johnsson spotting an unmarked Marleau (12), represented the final humiliation for a beleaguered penalty kill.

Of course, not every power play can move the puck like the highly-skilled Leafs. They’re designed to exploit an aggressive penalty kill.

That’s not to absolve San Jose. They needed to have more sticks in lanes, be quicker and smarter on the kill. Smarter, like on occasion, not biting so hard on less dangerous pointmen like Marner and Rielly and staying closer to home on Matthews and Tavares.

”Our attention to detail on the PK is as good as anybody in the league,” said Peter DeBoer. “It wasn’t tonight.”