On a night when the NHL announced all of William Nylander, Mitch Marner, and Morgan Rielly are joining Auston Matthews on the All-Star roster, the Maple Leafs opened up a 3-0 lead in the first period and looked ready to celebrate.
But reality hit hard as the Avalanche stormed back for a 5-3 win in regulation on a night when — ironically enough — Colorado’s stars ended up outplaying the Leafs‘.
Your game in 10:
1. It was a bit of a slow start to the game for the Leafs, who recorded only one shot on net through nearly six minutes. Overall, though, the shots were just 3-1, and it felt like two teams from different conferences were feeling each other out — a process which is made a tad more difficult for the Leafs when the Avalanche run an unconventional 11 and 7, allowing Colorado to play their top players a little more while making them a little bit more difficult to line match against (which is usually how the Leafs deploy their lines).
Colorado created a tricky chance early on as Cale Makar took a shot that went off a skate and Martin Jones made a good adjustment to save it. Those are the kinds of little saves the Leafs generally need from their goalie (rather than big highlight-reel saves), and Toronto scored shortly after.
The 1-0 goal itself didn’t have much to it. The Leafs won the offensive-zone faceoff, went D-to-D at the top, Timothy Liljegren took a shot that went wide, and Mark Giordano pinched down the wall (the Leafs have been aggressive sending defensemen down the wall and pulling a forward up high). Max Domi was the forward who pulled up high, where he made a nice adjustment to choke down on his stick and muster as much as he could on the bouncing puck. Look how far down his stick Domi’s top (right) hand was:
The puck took a lucky bounce off Josh Manson, but maybe more important was Pontus Holmberg going to the net. He didn’t get a point on the play, but I don’t think Manson could see the puck before it was too late. By then, it went off his chest and in. 1-0 Leafs.
2. After the Leafs scored, the fourth line followed up the goal with a nice shift. Noah Gregor almost scored off a nice breakout pass from Jake McCabe, catching the pass in stride and using his speed to go wide. Auston Matthews also made a nice backdoor, 360 pass to Mitch Marner, who was stopped in tight.
Shortly afterward, Morgan Rielly decided to do it all himself. He won a battle below the Leafs’ goal line against Jonathan Drouin to recover the puck then skated it out himself as the rest of the team changed.
I think Rielly caught Devon Toews asleep on the play. Toews seemed to assume that Rielly would flip the puck in and go change, but the puck probably didn’t go as far/high as Rielly wanted, so he hung in the play, noticed how nonchalant Toews was handling it, and tipped it by him for a mini breakaway. Rielly then roofed a really nice backhand finish.
A lot of credit goes to Rielly for that finish; it didn’t look like there was much space available, but he made a great play to elevate it in tight.
3. The third line was mostly excellent tonight and was rewarded again before the first period ended.
After Pontus Holmberg won a race to the puck in the corner, the puck went to the point, and Holmberg went to the net, where he won a battle in front. He repeatedly came up with the puck and whacked away at it. Eventually, the puck squeaked out to Timothy Liljegren with the Avs’ goalie already down, and Liljegren did well to get the puck up and through traffic into a wide-open top of the net. Now leading 3-0, everything was coming up Leafs.
4. Just last Saturday, Colorado went down 3-0 to the Florida Panthers in the first period before storming back to score three unanswered of their own in the second period to tie it. They eventually lost 8-4, but they did manufacture a good comeback in the first go-round, so this isn’t unfamiliar territory to them.
Colorado came out buzzing to start the second period, but Martin Jones stood tall. The Leafs appeared to have calmed the storm a little, and Pontus Holmberg nearly scored on a cross-ice pass that Max Domi put a ton of heat on to get through (which definitely impacted Holmberg’s ability to hammer it).
After the Leafs iced the puck with the second line on, the Avs put out their top line. Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren combined to turn it over behind the net, Colorado came out from behind the Leafs’ net and created a great scoring chance, and Giordano held on to prevent a goal.
On the ensuing penalty, the Leafs once again lost the faceoff, and to make matters worse, David Kampf took a penalty on the play. The Avs tried to give the Leafs the puck, but TJ Brodie lifted his skate and let it go instead, giving Colorado a wide-open chance in the slot that Jonathan Drouin buried to make it 3-1.
5. Because there was a delayed penalty on the goal, the Avalanche stayed on the power play with another full two minutes to work with to make it a one-goal game. Colorado created one lucky chance — a cross-ice pass bounced off McCabe’s skate and right to Ross Colton in front all alone — but Martin Jones made a huge save to keep it a 3-1 game. Otherwise, the Leafs shut the door on this penalty kill as William Nylander, in particular, created a few turnovers (although he also turned it over himself just inside the blue line; Brodie bailed him out).
There has been much talk about the Leafs’ struggling special teams lately. Not only did they give one up there, but after killing the second penalty, they went to a power play of their own and created absolutely nothing. The best chance of the two minutes was arguably Makar’s off the rush, which is unacceptable at home. Those are momentum-swinging moments in a game; even if you don’t score, you have to at least test the other team and build some momentum.
6. That proved to be a missed opportunity for the Leafs. Shortly afterward, the Avs made it 3-2.
Following a 2v2 scoring chance off the rush, Rantanen beat Matthew Knies to the puck on the wall, and when Knies attempted to check him, he lost his stick. The puck bounced to Auston Matthews, who didn’t realize Knies didn’t have a stick and passed it back to him.
If you watch Knies on the play, he thought he might have drawn a penalty at first, but afterward, he was very casual about skating to grab his stick. As he was taking his time getting it, Rantanen buried a rebound right beside him.
Knies really struggled in a game where he spent a lot of time on the ice against Cale Makar. There’s no shame in that — he’s a rookie and Makar is a superstar — but he got jammed up multiple times on the wall. Makar was dancing all game.
When Knies struggles like this, it highlights the Leafs’ lack of options. Knies was benched for the third period — as were John Tavares and Tyler Bertuzzi, who both struggled with the pace of the game and were liabilities as a result. We saw Sheldon Keefe switch it up in the third and try something else as a result.
7. You could tell there was a sense of urgency from the Leafs to start the third period. They put out a line of William Nylander – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner, which is something we have rarely seen them do this season. To their credit, they almost scored as Matthews and Nylander worked a little give-and-go play of sorts, but Matthews had too tough of an angle to finish the play on the short side.
The MacKinnon – Rantanen line with the Toews – Makar pair gave the Leafs fits all night, and it was a fair call from Keefe to try to load up as much as possible to go head-to-head against them. Case in point, when the second line with John Tavares, Matthew Knies, and Tyler Bertuzzi played half of a shift against them, Tavares promptly took a penalty.
From there, the Max Domi line with Pontus Holmberg and Calle Jarnkrok basically became the team’s second line, and Keefe pretty much went to the David Kampf line on principle alone instead of playing Bertuzzi – Tavares – Knies.
8. Colorado didn’t score on the power play after the Tavares penalty, but they did tie the game shortly after anyway.
Again, it was a bit of a broken play, but Colorado was applying a ton of pressure and the Leafs were consistently struggling to break out and maintain offensive-zone time. When a team spends a disproportionate amount of time in its own zone, it is more susceptible to these types of goals happening.
The goal itself is a great example of some of the issues plaguing the Leafs this season. After the Avs dumped it in, Timothy Liljegren couldn’t make a clean play on the retrieval. When the puck eventually made it up to Max Domi on the wall, he was stonewalled for a turnover. After the Avs took an initial shot, Cogliano beat all Leafs defenders to the puck, got it up high to the point, and Manson took a shot that deflected off a player and bounced to Cogliano, who shot it home.
You can quibble with the hard-luck nature of the goal, but poor process leads to goals like this. The Avs carried the shot attempts and scoring chances in all three periods.
9. The game started to settle down at 3-3 and looked destined for yet another extra time after the Leafs killed off yet another penalty (I don’t want to get into a full-on point about officiating and generally shy away from critiquing it, but the penalties finishing 4-1 for the Avalanche in this game was… not right).
The Leafs’ newly-formed top line tilted the ice on a shift late in the third in a push to win in regulation. The problem: All three forwards can’t be aggressive against a team of this quality. When the Avs recovered the puck, they went down the ice on an odd-man rush.
The Leafs can’t give up a 3v2 from their own blue line with three minutes and change left in a tie game. That should never happen. Good teams will do exactly what the Avs did and capitalize. MacKinnon was able to stop up, cradle the puck, pick a spot, and rip it.
Afterward, the Leafs created very little and the Avs eventually scored an empty netter for a 5-3 final.
10. The story of this game: The Avs have two superstars on their top line (along with maybe the best defense pairing in the league), and they vastly outplayed the Leafs’ two superstars in a head-to-head matchup with the Leafs on home ice.
The whole point of playing the top players together is to load up and dominate. That happened for one team tonight, but it wasn’t the Leafs. Auston Matthews was thoroughly outplayed and Mitch Marner did very little in this game while Rantanen made it 3-2 and MacKinnon scored the game-winner.
Marner played 22:22, Nylander played 23:00, and Matthews played 21:12 — none of them recorded a point, and they were all on the ice for the Avalanche’s late game-winning goal.