Imagine where these Maple Leafs might go over the next few weeks if Randy Carlyle could get his troops to play as tight defensively at even strength as they do while down a man.



There’s no doubt the team is a work in progress in its own end as sloppiness continues to make for some anxious moments. But on the penalty-kill, they’ve passed the Carlyle lesson plan with flying colours, a big reason they can now smell the post-season.

In Saturday’s grind-it-out 2-1 road win over the New Jersey Devils, that unit was perfect again and at its shutdown best in the final minute of the game. When Nikolai Kulemin took a penalty for holding on to a broken stick with 42 seconds left and Devils coach Pete DeBoer pulled Marty Brodeur for the extra attacker, the pressure was at its peak.

But the PK group, which had killed a 64-second two-man advantage earlier in the game, doesn’t panic. The skaters stick to their positions, for the most part give James Reimer a clear look and, most importantly, manage to keep the best scoring opportunities to the outside.

Remember, too, that under Ron Wilson, this is a group that consistently ranked in the bottom three or four in the league. They entered Saturday’s play as the NHL’s fourth-best and with a bullet.

With the games getting tighter and playoff implications heightened, the poise the Leafs show when down a man is encouraging. On a night when a rebound from Thursday’s poor effort against the Flyers was required, it was crucial.