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Wilson works to translate shots into goals

Phil Kessel looks towards the Air Canada Centre ceiling in disbelief after missing a scoring chance Tuesday night against Tampa Bay.

MIKE CASSESE/Mike Cassese/Reuters

With the crisis in the Toronto crease appearing to be on the wane, Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson has turned his attention to another of the many problems plaguing his last-place team.

Namely, beating the netminder at the other end of the ice.

While the Leafs rookie goaltender Jonas Gustavsson's save percentage has slowly crept above .900 and stabilized what was an ugly situation with Vesa Toskala in goal, Toronto's shooters have been generating plenty of chances and coming up empty all season. The Leafs are fourth in the NHL in shots on goal per game (33.5) but 25th in goals scored (2.38) - a far cry from last season when they finished with the league's 10th best offence.

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As a result, Toronto has the second-worst shooting percentage overall, ahead of only their opponent tomorrow, the Carolina Hurricanes.

After producing 41 shots and only one goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday, Wilson hauled out an old friend in a giant wooden shooter tutor and put it in the net during practice yesterday. The implication - that Leafs forwards had to pick the corners - was obvious after they had made the Lightning's Antero Niittymaki look unbeatable (and the game's first star) a night earlier.

"Ten shots, you've got to get one to go in," said new Leafs sniper Phil Kessel, who became one of only five NHL players to record 10 or more shots in a game this season in his Toronto debut on Tuesday. "I came here, my job's to score goals. I've got to bear down and start burying my chances."

"You get that many shots and eventually some of those are going to go in," centre John Mitchell.

Even coming off shoulder surgery, Kessel figures to be a big part of whatever offensive revitalization the Leafs can put together this season.

The 22-year-old winger was tied for 12th in NHL goal-scoring last season with 36 goals in only 70 games and proved in his first game that the nearly six-month layoff hadn't affected his ability to wire the puck at the net.

One potentially key factor on that front is that Kessel's production last season with the Boston Bruins came in large part at even strength, with just eight of his goals scored on the power play. Only six players - Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Marian Hossa, Rick Nash and Jeff Carter - had more even-strength goals than Kessel last season, and 13 games into this season, that's precisely where Toronto needs a boost.

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While the Leafs' power play is one of the league's best with a 27.5-per-cent success rate, they've scored only 15 goals at five-on-five - yet another category in which they currently sit last in the NHL.

One of the major issues for Wilson, however, is just who to partner with his new weapon given that he lacks any other offensive thoroughbreds up front.

Jason Blake and Matt Stajan got the call as Kessel's linemates in his first game, but in practice yesterday, Wilson shifted Mitchell into Stajan's spot at centre as part of some ongoing "experimenting."

"We've just got to be persistent and eventually the goals are going to come," Wilson said. "It's frustrating … [it's like]the movie Groundhog Day - you wake up and every time you're going into overtime and it's a struggle to score or finish an opponent off. But eventually you break through."

As for his rationale in bumping Mitchell, who has no goals and five assists in 13 games this season, onto the top line, the coach said he thought he might mesh well with Kessel and Blake.

"I like the way Mitchie played [against Tampa Bay] and his speed matches up," Wilson said.

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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