With their most successful November in franchise history behind them and only two losses in their last 16 games overall, the red-hot Maple Leafs will collide with a high-scoring Colorado Avalanche team that went 7-2-1 in November (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Opposite to how the Leafs are an elite team that has had some their trouble finishing this year at 5v5 relative to other top teams, the Avalanche have experienced the worst goaltending of the NHL’s 10-or-so-best clubs. Their five-on-five save-percentage ranks 25th in NHL on the season, and only ranks 23rd if you remove their 4-4-0 October. On the PK, they rank 25th as well.
As you would expect, the Avalanche have been primarily propelled by a truly dynamic offensive game. Unlike the Leafs, finishing at 5v5 hasn’t really been an issue for them all year and they’ve been especially goal-happy in recent weeks. They rank fifth in goals/60 on the year and were second in November while scoring five-or-more goals in six of their last eight games.
For the most part, their offense has been equally supported by their even-strength and special teams play, as they rank just inside the top 10 in both according to evolving-hockey’s WAR model. Their five-on-five play has earned them an average of over four power plays a game over their last eight contests, while they’ve scored 12 times at a rate of 33%, which ranks third in the NHL over that time.
This will be a truly intriguing measuring-stick game.
With the presumed backup Pavel Francouz injured at the start of the season, Darcy Kuemper has gotten a steady run as the starter in Colorado while the relatively inexperienced Jonas Johansson has been left with only three starts. Kuemper has been mediocre given the team’s play in front of him, going 9-5-0 with a .903 Sv%. Comparing his performance to his team xGoalsAgainst (GSAx), he ranks sixth last in the NHL among goalies with 100 or more minutes, which is certainly a bleaker outlook than his box-score numbers would suggest.
On the flip side, Jack Campbell — the NHL’s second star of the month in between Leon Draisaitl and Nazem Kadri — leads the league on that front. Despite the Leafs, generally speaking, performing well defensively this season, Campbell has still played well above average, ranking over three expected goals saved above any other netminder this season.
Despite a good showing in pre-season and to start the season with the Marlies, the Leafs announced this morning that Kirill Semyonov and the team have decided to place him on waivers in order to terminate his contract. Kyle Clifford and Joey Anderson coming into the fold as fringe forwards certainly played a part, as did the eventual return of Ilya Mikheyev. Three games isn’t an amount of time to make a full evaluation on a player, so it’s unlikely that the Leafs front office was the one pulling the strings here.
Despite the short time he had to make an impression, it’s likely that Semyonov planned to leave if he hadn’t etched out a semi-permanent role by this point. Even though it looked like he had the potential to be an useful player, Semyonov can earn similar money in the KHL than he can with the Leafs and exponentially more than he would earn with the Marlies, so he’ll follow the likes of Alexander Barabanov, Mikko Lehtonen, Igor Ozhiganov out the door as KHL imports who didn’t catch on in Toronto. The reality is that if these players don’t achieve regular playing time, they can’t be counted on as roster depth extras due to the context in which they crossed the pond looking for a real NHL opportunity immediately.
The aforementioned Joey Anderson will be in a good spot to make an impression tonight, starting in the injured Ondrej Kase’s usual spot with David Kampf and Pierre Engvall. Anderson is courageous and energetic despite his smallish stature, so he could be a decent fit on that line. It’s easy to forget he played 51 games with the Devils in the NHL between 2018-20, averaging 13:05 TOI and earning 13 points (eight goals, five assists). He also tailled seven points (five goals, two assists) in 13 games with the Marlies.
Moving off the primary defensive zone start line is Nick Ritchie, who will move onto a line with the veterans Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds.
Strap yourself in for a good one tonight, Leafs fans.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the biggest threat the Avalanche pose:
Yeah, I think today [our defense] will be put to the test, more so than anything that we’ve seen. Obviously, they’ve got really dynamic forwards that are game-breakers, but the most unique thing about this team is how dynamic their [defensemen] are.
Cale Makar is leading their team in five-on-five goals — I don’t know how many teams in the league where that’s the case. Their defense is extremely fast, extremely dynamic, they make plays all over the ice, and they stretch you. It’ll be a big test for us to handle that.
Keefe on his approach to this matchup:
The more time we can spend in their half of the ice is going to help us the most. That’s really the focus. As a team, we generally do that well. [Colorado], on the flip side, they spend a lot of time in the offensive zone, too, so it’ll be a big battle there tonight in terms of who is able to establish their game that way.
That’ll be it for us — try to keep them as far away from the net as possible and spend time on offence ourselves. Certainly, when it’s time to defend, we need to find our structure quickly, maintain our structure, and look to keep the seams closed.
From my eye, they lead the league in backdoor open net tap-ins because they just make so many plays. A lot of that is you get drawn to the motion and the speed and how dynamic their defensemen are that you’re chasing them around. It’s a matter of us finding our structure and trusting it.
Keefe on his team’s excellent November:
It’s easy to focus on November because it was such a great month and there’s a lot of reason for optimism and positivity because of the work that’s been put in there. We obviously feel very good about that, but when you’re talking about the quarter mark of the season, you can’t leave out October.
There’s a lot of things there we feel we didn’t do well that we’ve learned from and enabled us to have a good November. Now that we’ve found our game here, it’s a matter of consistency. That’s really it. Our focus is on doing it all the time.
Auston Matthews on Nathan MacKinnon and the rest of Colorado’s dynamic offense:
I think just his attacking mentality [is impressive]. You watch him and he’s always attacking, fighting for space, creating offense, and he’s strong on the puck. Obviously, he’s a world-class player, so it’ll be a big boost for them getting him back in the lineup tonight. He’s a guy you always have to be aware of because he always looking to attack when he’s out there.
I feel like this whole team — you watch them play, you watch their clips — they skate all over the ice. D-zone, offensive zone, neutral zone — they’re all over the puck. Once they get in the offensive zone, it’s like there is not really any positions; everybody just kind of fills in spots roaming around and creating.
It’s hard to defend and when you have world-class players like they have on that roster, they’re very good and they make you pay.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #64 David Kampf – #28 Joey Anderson
#20 Nick Ritchie – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#30 Michael Hutchinson
Extras: Timothy Liljegren, Kyle Clifford
Injured: Ondrej Kase, Ilya Mikheyev, Petr Mrazek, Joseph Woll
Colorado Avalanche Projected Lines
#92 Gabriel Landeskog – #29 Nathan MacKinnon– #96 Mikko Rantanen
#13 Valeri Nichushkin– #91 Nazem Kadri – #95 Andre Burakovsky
#16 Nicolas Aube-Kubel – #18 Alex Newhook – #25 Logan O’Connor
#43 Darren Helm – #17 Tyson Jost – #12 Jayson Megna
#7 Devon Toews – #8 Cale Makar
#4 Bowen Byram – #49 Samuel Girard
#3 Jack Johnson – #6 Erik Johnson
Starter: #35 Jonas Johansson
#35 Darcy Kuemper
Injured/Out: Ryan Murray, JT Compher, Pavel Francouz