The Toronto Maple Leafs put together a strong showing against a rested Colorado team but a third period miscue ultimately cost them at least a point on Wednesday night.

Your game in ten:

1.  With an aura of desperation becoming more tangible with each loss, Sheldon Keefe and co. made a number of lineup alterations heading into the second half of this back-to-back. The most unorthodox of these (at least in today’s NHL) was going right back to Frederik Andersen in goal. Admittedly, it apparently came at the behest of Toronto’s netminder himself, unhappy with the conclusion of the Flyers game and very much aware of how badly his team needs some wins.

Despite the abundance of data (and common sense) indicating that goalies perform worse when playing on consecutive nights, this was the right choice.  With one of the worst GSAA in the league, Michael Hutchinson is definitively a worse option than a tired Frederik Andersen.  Worrying about Andersen’s workload with respect to playoff performance should now take a backseat to worrying about making the playoffs at all.

2.  Another long overdue change that Keefe made tonight was dropping Ceci to the bottom pairing with Dermott. Perhaps his historically-bad 1 xGF% from the Philadelphia game was the final straw, but he was always woefully miscast on the first pairing with Rielly against the opponent’s best players.

On the other hand, the negative narrative around Ceci sometimes veers into the realm of hyperbole and I’m interested to see what he can accomplish in softer minutes with an excellent third-pairing partner in Travis Dermott.  The duo fared pretty well on the night with Ceci himself clocking in at 53% of the shot share at even strength.  Perhaps more importantly, Ceci saw only 17:12 of ice time on the night after averaging 22:13 thus far this season.

3.  As part of the rejigged blueline, it looks like Keefe will lean on Muzzin-Holl in a shutdown role (37.5% o-zone starts on the night) for now. As a result, Morgan Rielly will be deployed with Tyson Barrie as a partner in what should be an effective duo offensively — although that wasn’t really on display tonight. Rielly and Barrie will have to rely on pushing possession time with the Matthews group to provide a net benefit on the ice as their ability to directly defend is limited.

Keefe indicated he expects more of them in this regard after tonight’s tilt and I would expect them to trend in a positive direction if they continue to be put in favourable positions with the team’s best forwards.  Their ability to think the game on the same level offensively should produce smoother passes and better reads than the many miscues we saw in Rielly’s time with Ceci.

4.  The Leafs matched the energy of the speedy and well-rested Avalanche out of the gate. Despite some defensive breakdowns, they fared relatively well as the tired team, holding a slight 19-17 edge in shot attempts heading into the first intermission.  However, Colorado was still able to penetrate the slot with frequency and had more high danger chances in both of the first two periods.  It took an Avalanche power play for them to get one past Andersen as a Rantanen-to-MacKinnon royal road pass culminated in MacKinnon’s opening tally.

5.  Despite the early power play goal against, the penalty kill remains one of the most consistent areas of improvement for this team since the coaching change. This was on display with the gutsy third period kill of a double minor. The penalty killers have shut down the middle of the ice (for the most part) while pressuring the puck carrier.  They also have been aggressive in their puck pursuit in all three zones, denying their opponents the time and space to effectively transition back up the ice.

6.  Toronto’s only goal of the night came from their new-look third line. A strong pinch by Ceci and some determined work down-low lead to a Kerfoot behind-the-back pass to Hyman for a deflection in front.

Keefe has said he likes Hyman-Kerfoot-Kapanen as a potential matchup trio and they certainly have the tools to be effective in this role.  However, compared to Babcock, Keefe won’t match lines quite as obsessively and thus his third line won’t see as extreme a zone start differential.  As such, I foresee some decent possession time with this group as Hyman’s ability to forecheck and retrieve the puck should mesh will with Kerfoot’s own doggedness and Kapanen’s transition capabilities.

7.  An unfortunate blunder at the blue line (courtesy of Jason Spezza ft. Morgan Rielly) on Toronto’s only power play of the night resulted in the shorthanded game-winner by Valeri Nichushkin. To their credit, the Leafs pressed hard for the remainder of the game but couldn’t get one past Philip Grubauer to tie it up.

8.  Yes, Spezza deserves the goat horns for the Nichushkin shorthanded goal. He admitted as much immediately after the game. Regardless, the decision to keep him in the lineup over Gauthier was probably something Babcock would never have done.  I think Engvall has earned his spot on that fourth line and the penalty kill for the near future.  I also would like to see Engvall-Spezza-Moore together when Moore returns to the lineup.  Speed and tenacity on the wings and some respectable skill across the line is an intriguing combination.

Despite flashing definite potential as a bottom six forward, I think Timashov’s limitations offensively will make him an easy scratch when the time comes.  That being said, Engvall-Spezza-Timashov got crushed at even strength in this tilt in limited minutes and realistically the brunt of the burden will fall on the top nine forwards to drive this 18-wheeler back up the cliff.

9.  The return of Mitch Marner looks like it will provide an immediate infusion of offense and gamebreaking ability as evidenced on a number of occasions in this game. His ease in gaining the zone and penetrating the slot completely by himself is a good indication that he has made a strong recovery from his ankle sprain.

It looks like the Leafs will have their top nine group together for an extended run for the first time this season.  They are in dire need of some sustained offensive success to compensate for their defensive deficiencies as they attempt to string wins together in the coming weeks.

10.  It is an indictment of Mike Babcock’s shortcomings that line changes are such a noteworthy occurrence for this team. The fact that Keefe shows a willingness to mix things up from game-to-game when the team needs a jolt is an incredibly simple and commonplace adjustment that this team’s prior bench boss was too stubborn to make. It gives the team a different look and allows the players to have experience with a variety of linemates – experience which is invaluable in creating lineup flexibility for the duration of the season and into the playoffs.  This is not unique to Keefe and the vast majority of coaches in the NHL do this on a regular basis.

What is more unique to Keefe are some of his in-game adjustments as he manages his bench actively and with situational awareness.  In this game alone, we saw Marner take some shifts with the Matthews-Nylander duo as an attempt to inject offense into the team in the early goings.  We also saw Hyman reunited with Tavares-Marner after he scored his goal as the second period wound down.  These may be simple and short-lived changes, but the hope is they will be refreshing and energizing for the players. Hearing the multitude of references to motivation and determination that have surrounded this team thus far into the season, it is clear that Keefe is turning over every stone he can to make this young team’s effort level more consistent. If the team ultimately can’t discover that consistency, it won’t be through a lack of experimentation from the coach to find out what it’s truly capable of.

The Leafs acquitted themselves well against a rested Colorado team tonight.  Effort was not an issue and they played to the final whistle.  However, there’s not much solace to be found in moral victories at this point.  They embark on a four-game road trip starting with the Blues on Saturday and will need to take the majority of the points available to keep themselves in the playoff race.

Game Flow: 5v5 Shot Attempts

Game Highlights