“Do or die”, a phrase that can be used for pretty much all of the games remaining on the Maple Leafs schedule as they attempt to maneuver themselves into that final playoff spot. Â Yet this blog’s tagline uses this redundant sports idiom for more than it’s alliterative appeal, as tonight’s visit to Colorado will reflect the ability of our young Toronto team to close out those “winnable” games. Â Yes, the Avalanche are an up-and-coming team laden with skilled youngsters. Â If I were a member of the finger-wagging MSM, I would make it clear that they are a team rebuilding the “right way”, and that the Leafs own efforts are misguided and inferior. Â But at this point in the season, only one thing matters: this is a team with just three wins in their last 23. Â They are abysmal right now, with inadequate goaltending and the motivational issues that inevitably arise in bottomfeeding NHL clubs. Â Toronto trotted out what some would call the quintessential road game against Minnesota on Tuesday night. Â The mark of good teams in this league is the ability to execute such performances consistently when it matters. Â As such, regardless of this team’s playoff destiny, tonight (9 PM, Sportsnet) will be a test worth watching.
The Matchup Stats
Thankfully, the Leafs are preparing for this game with a dutifully cautionary approach (according to their quotes in the last few days). Â They realize that they must take care of business, but are avoiding the temptation of underestimating their opponent. Â Despite their struggles, Colorado is on a two-game winning streak, closing off matches against Columbus and Edmonton in the shootout. Â Nevertheless, both of the aforementioned teams are out of the playoff mix in the Western Conference, and Toronto will need to ramp up the pressure on a Colorado squad that is merely looking to act as a spoiler.
Hopefully Coach Wilson and his staff have alerted Toronto defenders to the currently dominant play of Matt Duchene. Â The former third overall pick has returned nicely from a hand injury, notching 8 points in his last five games while setting a new career-high in goals (25). Â Duchene has elevated his speed and intensity in recent matches, in an impressive show of leadership for the sophomore skater. Â That is, he has rallied what remains of the motivated Avalanche players, in an attempt to salvage some pride and hope for next year after a thoroughlyÂ disappointingÂ season.
Contrarily, established Colorado stars Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk have all-but thrown in the towel on this season. Â The pair have been regular minus players in this last stretch while displaying a lack of desire and focus. Â That being said, Toronto always seems to inspire the best in slumping opponents, and both of the above players can awake in an instant on a once-lethal Avalanche powerplay.
Many critics of current Colorado GM Greg Sherman (Papa Stastny, for one) will point to his moves this season as a step backwards for the franchise. Â Management felt the need to establish some sort of identity for their blueline, and paid a heavy price (Chris Stewart and then some) to acquire Erik Johnson from the St. Louis Blues, in the hopes that he will blossom into a franchise defenseman. Â The jury is still out on Johnson, but Stewart is an explosive power forward that has been missed in Denver. Â Colorado identified David Jones as a possible replacement for their departed scorer. Â The 26-year old plays a similar upbeat game, albeit with less overall skill.
From a Leafs perspective, the strategy is simple: win. Â Insightful analysis, I know. Â But if Toronto is to pull off the type of miracle that would get them into a playoff berth this season, they will need to go into each game with the same mentality. Â The top-to-bottom work ethic, speed, and dedication that they showed against Minnesota will need to be present regardless of who the top scorer is for the other team or how good the opposition powerplay is. Â A few more shutouts from James Reimer wouldn’t hurt either.
Komisarek and Boyce draw back in, Lebda and Rosehill take a seat.
Aulie-Phaneuf Schenn-Gunnarsson Lashoff-Komisarek