A home game versus the Colorado Avalanche looked like one of the easiest matchups of the season a few months ago. A surging Nathan MacKinnon, a red-hot Jonathan Bernier, and Colorado’s nine-game winning streak changed this narrative completely. Morgan Rielly missed his second straight game with an upper-body injury, putting the pressure on Jake Gardiner to help shutdown a powerhouse line of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen.
Auston Matthews came close to giving the Leafs an early lead just one minute in. He stole the puck at Colorado’s blue-line and quickly turned this into a breakaway, but could not beat Bernier on his blocker side. Just one minute later, Gabriel Bourque beat both Roman Polak and Andreas Borgman in a footrace, retrieved the puck from behind the Leafs net, dished it off to Tyson Jost, then headed to the net to put home a rebound. 1-0 Colorado just two minutes in.
Both teams settled in to play low event hockey shortly after, but this would not last for long. William Nylander drew a slashing penalty around the halfway mark of the first, and Patrik Nemeth gifted the Leafs a two-man advantage by getting his stick in the face of Nazem Kadri. With 1:11 still remaining on the first penalty, the Leafs sent out Matthews, Nylander, Mitch Marner, James van Riemsdyk, and Jake Gardiner for the 5-on-3. The Leafs would waste this incredible opportunity, as the only scoring chance came when Nylander made a nice move to beat Colorado’s defencemen, but failed to beat Bernier on a short breakaway.
After both penalties expired, the Avs sent out their top line against Toronto’s fourth line and third defence pairing. This was an absolute disaster, as Frederik Gauthier made two blatant giveaways in what might be the worst shift of his career. Matt Martin would join the bad giveaway party later in the period, and the fourth line got its teeth kicked in throughout the first twenty minutes. The Avalanche continued to establish a strong cycle game against a post-powerplay line of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, but the Leafs managed to hold their own for the final portion of this period. 1-0 Colorado after one. The Leafs got absolutely crushed by their fourth line and third pairing, but the rest of the team played relatively well.
Marleau! Just sixteen seconds in, the 38-year old veteran wired a slapshot past Bernier to tie this game up at one. Leo Komarov gained the zone and sent a drop pass back to Marleau, and his one-timer found the top-right corner in a blink of an eye. 1-1 on Marleau’s 16th of the season.
A few minutes later, Rantanen just missed giving the Avs yet another lead. He gained the zone, danced around Komarov, then hit the post on Frederik Andersen’s blocker side. Just before the halfway point, Matthews fanned on Nylander’s pass to the slot, and the puck deflected off Hyman’s skate before ending up behind Bernier. Matthews tapped home the loose puck for what should have been his 21st goal of the season, but the Avs challenged for goalie interference. While this looked to be a waste of timeout at first glance, the call on the ice was somehow reversed. Babcock was fuming, the ACC started a “ref you suck” chant, and Matthews was left wondering if he had an imaginary friend who mysteriously interfered with Bernier. There was no other explanation.
Just a couple of minutes later, William Nylander pulled off some witchcraft and wizardry in the neutral zone, beat Colorado’s defender out wide, and fired a quick shot at Bernier’s left pad. Matthews drove to the net and jumped on the rebound, sending it past Bernier to give Toronto a 2-1 lead. There was no phantom goalie interference call this time, and Matthews waved this a good goal all by himself:
Matthews' goal got called off. What does he do? Scores again, and does the "good goal" referee point celly.— Flintor (@TheFlintor) January 23, 2018
The ACC was electric, but this lead did not last for long. Just a minute and a half later, Borgman handed Alexander Kerfoot the puck on a silver platter by bobbling the puck in the neutral zone, and the Avs streaked in on a two-on-one. Kerfoot slid the puck over to Nail Yakupov, and the former first overall pick made no mistake. This game was tied at 2 with nine minutes to go in the second.
The second period remained awfully eventful. Rantanen picked Gardiner’s pocket and walked in for a decent scoring chance, but Andersen was up to the challenge. Gardiner then immediately set up Matthews for his patented wrist shot, but Toronto’s young star just missed yet another goal. Not to be outdone, Nylander drew another penalty thanks to his ability to hold onto the puck, then barely missed a grade-A scoring opportunity on the ensuing powerplay. The Leafs headed into the second intermission tied at 2, but Matthews and Nylander were putting on a show. Kerfoot and Rantanen impressed on the other end.
Toronto dictated play throughout the first half of the period, but high danger scoring chances were tough to come by. Neither team took a penalty during this time, and we were left to watch scoreless five-on-five play. The second half of the frame quickly proved to be more eventful, as Marleau had a chance in tight but missed the net wide.
Colorado took the lead following a rather harmless looking rush with eight minutes left in regulation. Carl Soderberg gained the line, quickly drawing Carrick’s attention. This left Dermott and Matthews to defend Blake Comeau, and Dermott decided to jump up to take the trailer. Matthews was a step behind and never fully picked him his man, as Comeau shovelled in Soderberg’s pass past Andersen for his ninth goal of the season. 3-2 Colorado, with just under eight minutes to play.
The Avalanche managed to keep this game uneventful until the final few minutes. A couple of net-front plays from van Riemsdyk and Hyman tested Bernier in the final two minutes, but the Leafs did not get a favourable bounce. After missing a couple of long shots on an empty net, Gabriel Landeskog scored the easiest goal of his life on a breakaway.
The Leafs will now head to Chicago for an 8pm game on Wednesday. Matthews, Nylander, and Marleau are my stars of the game tonight for the Leafs, and the Carrick-Dermott pairing performed well in terms of shot attempt differential. The fourth line and third pairing were horrifying. On the bright side, the Leafs never took a penalty.