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Maple Leafs seek puck-possession blueprint from blowout of Sabres

10/29/2014 03:55 EDT | Updated 12/29/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - In pummelling the Sabres on Tuesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs put up 37 shots to Buffalo's 10. It was the kind of dominating performance that's usually reserved for lower levels of hockey.

And while the Leafs know they won't be able to do that often, they see a blueprint for success. And it starts with puck management.

"When you turn pucks over at your blue-line, their blue-line and make bad decisions with the puck, you're usually going to be chasing the game and you're going to be getting outshot by a ton," said Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk. "When you're smarter with the puck it definitely creates more time in their end."

In the first eight games of the season, the Leafs were outshot six times. Getting outshot and winning was part of their recipe last season when Jonathan Bernier shined in goal, but it's not a sustainable road to the playoffs.

The Leafs found that out last spring. While new assistant coach Peter Horachek wasn't around for that, he knows that the best teams manage the puck well and don't get outshot regularly.

"Any time you're giving up 30-plus shots that's not good," Horachek said after Wednesday's intrasquad scrimmage. "A lot of teams get that number of shots when you get into the high 30s because you're turning pucks over, because you're not exiting your zone in a clean manner.

"You're not making the first pass, the second pass and coming out, you're not managing the puck in the neutral zone where you're making clean passes or laying it in behind when it's necessary."

That's what the Leafs were doing well Tuesday night in a 4-0 waxing of the 2-8-0 Sabres, who have scored just 11 goals over their first 10 games.

"We weren't turning the puck over as much as we had in other games," Horachek said. "Understanding where you are on the ice and the support and putting pucks in to where you need to go and continue to have offensive possession. We were cycling the puck fairly well, we were skating with that."

Toronto, which hasn't been the darling of advanced stats under Randy Carlyle, won the Corsi category in a major way by attempting 50 shots on net to the Sabres' 32 when play was at even strength. Had it not been for the strong play of Buffalo goaltender Michal Neuvirth through the first two periods, it likely would've been worse.

Leafs players know they can't dominate in that fashion every night, especially as tougher opponents come along. They visit the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night before hosting the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday night.

Puck possession will be much more of a challenge against those teams.

"It's not necessarily only about possession per se," van Riemsdyk said. "You want to make smart decisions with the puck and when you do that you usually have the puck more ... when you're not chasing the game as much it makes it a lot easier to play."

Horachek said it's never going to be perfect, but the coaching staff was seeking some level of consistency from players. Alternate captain Joffrey Lupul noticed that more against the Sabres than in previous games.

"Individually we had a lot more guys on board," Lupul said. "I think throughout the first eight games, each night you could kind of tell as a player some guys had a good game and some guys weren't."

The next step is maintaining that. It was already Carlyle's message Tuesday night.

"Now that you've been able to prove to us that you can play a game that we needed to play, that we have to play, a style that we have to play with a commitment to the little things in the game that now our expectations are to carry that on to the next one," he said.

Note: Morgan Rielly said he's OK after leaving practice in some pain. Rielly, who leads Leafs defencemen in points with four on a goal and three assists, insisted his departure was "precautionary."

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