The Leafs were on the road tonight, playing the franchise highest in altitude and lowest in points. They slaughtered them.
The game opened with some quick offensive exchanges, and Mitch Marner made a Kessel-style streak up the right wing and wired a shot off the post behind Semyon Varlamov. Pucks going past Varlamov was going to be a theme tonight.
Neither team is famed for its defensive prowess, and they traded chances early. Marner had another golden opportunity on a partial break where he couldn’t quite put the puck in the gap between Varlamov’s left pad and the post. Beloved local hero Zach Hyman had a whirling backhand off a pass from Matthews, but he missed the net.
After a bit more scuffling, Matthews did Auston Matthews things. He stopped noted good hockey player Gabriel Landeskog, and turned the play up the other way. Matthews proceeded to score in pure sniper fashion, using the defender as a screen and wiring a shot top corner. It was amazing.
Subsequent to that, Nazem Kadri took a holding penalty; about halfway through the kill, Roman Polak got booked for interference. Polak vigorously objected that he was just playing defence, but to no avail; the Leafs were down two men for about a minute. With some tense moments and some excellent work from Frederik Andersen, the Leafs escaped lead intact.
Rene Bourque took a hooking penalty, and the Leafs took advantage with some excellent puck movement. Gardiner fed Nylander on the side boards, and Nylander found Connor Brown in the slot with a smooth pass. Varlamov was playing close to the near post, fearing Nylander’s impressive shot, and so the barn door was left open for Brown. 2-0 Leafs.
The Leafs basically walked all over the Avs the rest of the period. The Avs had one or two chances ably turned aside by Andersen, but if you can’t hold the Leafs in their zone for extended stretches, they will gut you. This is what happened, and before the end of the first, it happened yet again.
Towards the end of the period, the Avs lost another puck battle in their own end. JVR threw the puck back, and Polak ripped a shot, which Kadri tipped. The Leafs were up 3-0 before the first was over.
The Avs managed maybe their best chance of the period at the very end as Rene Bourque, Joe Colborne and Matt Duchene went corner--slot—side of the net in short order. Duchene might well have scored had he gotten a clean shot, but Mitch Marner did a good job obstructing the pass, and Duchene fired wide.
Looking at the first as a whole: the Leafs allowed about two dangerous chances at 5v5, and they had a couple of close calls on the 5-on-3. Beyond that they dominated. Kadri and Matthews’ lines destroyed their competition, and that was basically that. Matthews in particular had an outstanding period.
Cody McLeod hit Matthews in the first period, I should have mentioned, and while he brushed it off, the Leafs concluded this hit could not go unanswered. McLeod also probably wanted to spark his moribund team, so he and Matt Martin had a stand-up brawl. It was a mediocre fight, probably about even.
Connor Brown got bumped in the head by Parick Wiercoch, and needed a looking-at on the bench. He seems to have been fine, though.
James van Riemdsyk took a tripping penalty after apparently getting a stick in on Blake Comeau’s foot. JVR seemed confused and the replay suggested JVR’s stick actually made no contact with Comeau, but the Leafs killed the penalty without incident. The hockey gods decided to award James appropriate redress, because he got the puck coming out of the box and smoked a shot top corner. 4-0 Leafs.
This game moved into official massacre territory as Frederik Gauthier and Mitch Marner collaborated on Goal #5. The play began with a block and a zone exit from the goat; after a bit of zone work, Marner found Gauthier in the slot, and Freddie G fired the puck top corner because apparently this was the night for it. Congrats to Freddie on his first NHL goal!
Five goals was apparently enough for Colorado coach Not Patrick Roy to euthanize Semyon Varlamov’s evening, and Calvin Pickard came in to take the back half of the game.
With the game effectively over, the Leafs sat back a bit. The Avs actually did get a couple of decent chances, but Andersen continued to be outstanding.
Unfortunately, while killing a Morgan Rielly penalty, Roman Polak took a hard boarding hit and looked to be in rough shape. Polak did try to head back out for the next shift (he wasn’t permitted to do so.) The Leafs wanted a call and were vocally upset when they didn’t get one; they took a bench minor in the ensuing dispute. Please enjoy this gif that resulted.
The Avs got their second 5-on-3 of the evening, this one 90 seconds long. The Leafs killed this one off too; the Avs had a couple of chances, but it’s an unimpressive look for an NHL team to waste two and a half minutes of 5-on-3 in an evening.
Penalties kept coming to no further effect, and the Avs score-effected their way towards closing the possession gap, but good God, this was not close.
Avs are a train wreck. Leafs can do whatever they want tonight. Avs have to completely reinvent their team. So clear it all has to change— Ray Ferraro (@rayferrarotsn) December 23, 2016
The third period could have not happened and it would have made essentially no difference. The only events in the first ten minutes were Nikita Zadorov boarding Matt Martin and then Zadorov getting into a shoving match with Kadri. I assume Zadorov was auditioning for the critical late-blowout role of At Least This Guy Looked Like He Cared.
With eight minutes to go, Matt Martin steamrolled Carl Soderberg with a very hard, but clean, hit. A brawl ensued, including a fight between Byron Froese and Cody Goloubef. After all the penalties from this transaction were meted out, the Leafs wound up with another powerplay. Kadri jammed in a goal with the man advantage to bring the lead to 6-0.
The rest of the night had the Avalanche trying half-heartedly to be physical after trying zero-heartedly to be good at hockey. Freddie held the fort for the shutout.
- Holy sweet Jesus the Avalanche are terrible!
- While he had a huge margin for error, Frederik Andersen had his now-standard excellent evening; the Avs did get half a dozen decent chances over the night, and Freddie stoned ‘em. Due to the latter half of the game being Score Effects Theatre, he wound up with 38 saves en route to his shutout. Well done, Mr. Andersen./
Frederik Andersen now has a .921 SV%. Places him 8/25 among goalies with more than 20 games played. #Leafs— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) December 23, 2016
- The line of JVR-Kadri-Marner feasted on the Duchene line all evening. Several people have argued for doing this more often, although those wingers wouldn’t necessarily suit Kadri’s accustomed shutdown role and would leave Bozak with virtually nothing. Still, it may be something to consider going forward.
- Auston Matthews was really excellent, especially in the first, when the game was still in doubt. Everyone seems to underrate what an incredible shooter he is, probably due to the Laine comparisons, but what a sniper.
- The Leafs seemed to play in very distinct five-man units, Russian-style. Rielly and Zaitsev backed the Matthews line, while Gardiner and Carrick backed the Kadri group. Both lines were successful. At even strength, Mike Babcock leaned more heavily than usual on his top six—not surprisingly, given his typical two bottom centres were out.
- The result was that pseudo-4RW William Nylander played somewhat less than usual. It was mentioned on Twitter (by @VanKessZak) that Nylander might be being preserved for the back-to-back. It’ll be interesting to see how much ice Nylander gets in Arizona tomorrow./
@statssundin Last time this happened (vs EDM) Willie played like 19 min the next night (vs CGY). Saving him I bet.— Cali (@VanKessZak) December 23, 2016
- I need to mention this again: the Avs are really, really bad. I’d love to spend this whole recap talking about how great the Leafs were, and they did very well. But the Avs are probably worse than the team I initially thought was the worst in the NHL (Vancouver) and they’re close to the team who seem to be the actual worst (Arizona.) They are bewildered and easily bullied in their own zone, and their breakouts are definitively worse than even the Leafs’ shaky breakouts. I spent most of the game wondering if the Leafs might have a chance to snap up one of their quality forwards when Joe Sakic finally admits his team needs to be rebuilt.
- JVR hit a milestone with his goal—his 300th NHL point, as well as his 100th Leaf assist. In other milestone news, as mentioned above, Frederik Gauthier’s goal was his first in the NHL. Freddie Andersen’s shutout was his first as a Leaf.
- The Leafs head to Arizona tomorrow night to face the Coyotes. Auston Matthews’ old midget team is wildly excited to see him come to town./