Tonight’s Hockey Night in Canada pitted two of the best teams in the league against each other. The game did not disappoint.
At one point, it looked like it might be a laugher, but the Avalanche battled all the way back from a 4-1 deficit to win 5-4 in overtime.
It’s a shame the Leafs had to play this one without Mitch Marner, Ondrej Kase, and Pierre Engvall, three players they surely could have used. But this is the type of game they need to play in order to learn about themselves and prepare for the playoffs. I’ll take this any day over thrashing the Ottawa Senators and the McDavid-less Oilers.
Your game in 10:
1. The game started with the Avalanche recording the first seven shots on net, but it didn’t feel like the Leafs were getting heavily outplayed to that extent. The Avs did have a power play early on in the game (and created a few chances, though the Leafs did well to win the opening faceoff and make it difficult for them to set up in the offensive zone for the first half of it).
The Leafs generated a few offensive-zone shifts early on; they just didn’t get any shots through, including a particularly good shift cycling low by the fourth line of Kyle Clifford – Brett Seney – Wayne Simmonds. It also helps when they have Jack Campbell standing tall – he made a really good save on Tyson Jost, who was in all alone with speed at one point.
2. Of course, if we’ve learned anything about hockey over the years, it’s that when you are outshooting a team 7-0 early and haven’t scored yet, the other team is probably going to score first. And the Leafs did.
Michael Bunting made a really nice pass to Alex Kerfoot, who finished well by roofing the puck past Darcy Kuemper. For what it’s worth, Erik Johnson played the whole sequence horribly as Bunting didn’t have the inside track and he could have left him to shoot off the rush from a below-average angle. Instead, Johnson dove inexplicably, and it made for an easy play from there as Kerfoot wound up with nobody remotely near him.
3. From there, the Leafs really tilted the game in their favour and started to take it over, stringing together some nice shifts and scoring chances, including one where William Nylander’s nice stick lift on a back check of Bowen Byram turned the puck the other way and he found John Tavares in the high slot for a scoring chance. The fourth line created a chance off the rush on a nice through pass by Seney to Clifford. Auston Matthews broke free in the neutral zone and drove the net after gaining a step on Byram (and knocked over Kuemper along the way).
Matthews then tilted the game completely as he scored two goals in 33 seconds to put the Leafs up 3-0. The first was a nice shot pass by Morgan Rielly to Matthews in the slot, with Matthews picking up the rebound off of the deflection and putting it home.
The next goal was well executed by the whole unit as Jake Muzzin did well to keep the puck down low, Kerfoot won a battle, Bunting pulled defenders to him while battling in front of the net to gain position, and Matthews swooped in and finished a great pass. It was nice to see all the players on the ice chipping in for this one – a well-earned goal.
4. The Avalanche changed goalies after the Leafs went 3-0, pulling Kuemper for Pavel Francouz. I don’t think anyone would suggest a game against the Colorado Avalanche is over in the first period no matter what the score is, and for the Avalanche, they were able to get one goal back before the period ended to give them something to build on in the second.
It was essentially a 4v3 as Bunting went down in the offensive zone and Kerfoot was caught deep. If you have an odd-man rush in the NHL and the team with the puck executes it well, they will create a good scoring chance out of it. The Avs’ chance went to Nathan MacKinnon, who made no mistake. Campbell didn’t have much of a chance.
5. The Avs predictably came out with some pace to start the second and put a few shots on net, but nothing was particularly dangerous other than a half-second where Campbell coughed up a rebound on a relatively harmless Nazem Kadri shot from distance.
The game seemed to be turning on a Leafs power play where the Avs were handily outworking them for the first minute and the crowd started to come to life. However, after the Leafs’ second unit came on the ice, Wayne Simmonds made a great little play down low to pull in the goalie and kick it out to Nick Ritchie, who simply had to fire the puck in the empty net. Ilya Mikheyev made a nice read on the original play to pass it low to the open Simmonds.
6. The Avs predictably manufactured a little push down 4-1, even moving Kadri next to MacKinnon at times to try to jumpstart the offense. However, the Leafs did well to hold them off and even generated a few shifts of offensive-zone time to kill the clock, including some nice work by Jason Spezza to create a mini 2v1 down low for David Kampf and Nick Ritchie and a nice William Nylander play to cut in and set up John Tavares for a one-timer in the slot.
Everything seemed to be in good shape for the Leafs, but then came a bit of a disaster of a shift consisting of a calamity of errors. The Leafs were unable to clear the zone and didn’t get it deep for a full change, but the Avs were able to put some fresh forwards over the boards and hemmed the Leafs in for a few chances.
Finally, Cale Makar found the back of the net with a good point shot through traffic. The game seemed in good shape, but the Avs were now within two, and Andrei Burakovsky’s scoring chance was followed by a Tavares penalty (drawn by Kadri — because of course). That gave the Avs a power play that carried over into the final frame.
7. The Leafs’ penalty kill was generally pretty good in this one — it went 4/4 overall and had some stretches where they made it really hard on the Avs to enter the zone. Of note, William Nylander played 1:43 shorthanded — he was a regular there with Marner and Kase out of the lineup.
It also helps to have Jack Campbell in net, as he robbed Devon Toews in the slot while killing a penalty in the third. The Avs did not score on that power play, but they put five shots on net and were really tilting the ice against the Leafs at that point.
The Avs scored shortly afterward to make it a 4-3 game. To that point in the third, the shots were 12-2 for Colorado with half the period to go. I don’t want to sit here and claim the Leafs full-on shut it down and tried to defend their lead – the Avs are an elite offensive team, and they really turned it on.
The bigger issue for the Leafs was that they were unable to sustain any real offensive zone time of their own in the third period to that point. They were defending on their heels the whole time.
8. At that point, it seemed inevitable that the Avs were going to tie it up. They were pouring it on and only needed a goal with a whole bunch of time to work with. Eventually, it paid off, and they tied the game on a JT Compher goal after the Avs got it deep, won some battles down low, and made a nice pass from behind the net to an open Compher.
When the Leafs reflect on the second half of this game, I think the thing they will lament is not winning enough battles – on the defensive side of things — to shut the game down, and — on the offensive side — not sustaining more pressure and help kill the clock on the right side of the ice. The Avs ended this game with 50 shots on net.
9. The Leafs missing some key players really showed through down the stretch of the game – they did not have three lines of note they could roll with, and Matthews really wore down as the game went along. The altitude — or something — must have gotten to Matthews; he only played 20:53 on the night, including the whole overtime prior to the game-winner as he was caught on the ice.
Alex Kerfoot led all forwards in ice time with 21:17 and three points. The lack of depth shows when Brett Seney, Kyle Clifford, and Wayne Simmonds all play under nine minutes and Ritchie and Spezza play just 10 minutes and change. That’s almost half the forward group right there.
Justin Holl led all defensemen with 25:28 of ice time, including 4:59 shorthanded. I know he was on the ice for a few goals against, but I actually thought he was fairly solid in this game. Travis Dermott and Rasmus Sandin only played 11 minutes or so each – the coaching staff really shortened the bench on the whole and rode with their top guys tonight. By the end, with the game tied, the team had very little left to push back against the Avs.
10. In overtime, William Nylander and Auston Matthews pushed to end the game right away, and they almost did when Nylander centered one to Matthews, who unfortunately did not get all of it. Nylander peeled off for a change afterward, but Matthews stayed out – and he probably should have rushed to get off when Kadri dropped the puck right in front of him. Matthews had nothing left and was burned on the winner by Toews on a give-and-go where he tried to cheat for the pass instead of sticking with his man.
Jack Campbell was good on the night despite giving up five, but I was surprised to see him beat like he was from an outside angle.