It’s not often a team comes out feeling good about a loss.
But when it’s a 2-1 shootout loss against the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, a game in which the skating was fast and the passing was terrific but dangerous scoring chances were low, the Maple Leafs felt they did all that they could until the game got to the coin-flip part of the evening.
“Just two good teams, fast teams and not a whole lot of high-event stuff going on,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said.
And although they have lost two in a row for the first time since mid-January, the Leafs insist there’s nothing to see here. Move along.
“That was a good game,” said goal scorer Morgan Rielly. “Both teams obviously played well defensively. They’re skilled and they got their chances and we got ours. So ultimately it comes down to a shootout and they got the better of it.”
The Leafs and Avalanche can freewheel with the best of them, but this game got tight in a hurry, with both teams feeling the pressure of a playoff race: Toronto is trying to hold on to second place in the Atlantic Division while the Avalanche could drop into a wild-card spot in the Western Conference at any given moment.
So the point that came with getting to a shootout helped both teams. Nathan MacKinnon gave Colorado the extra point, as the Leafs lost two games in a row for the first time since Jan. 12 and 14 against Boston and Florida.
“Two teams played hard,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They didn’t give up much. We didn’t give up much either. They carried play a little bit more than we did, especially to the first two periods. They pushed, we didn’t crack … They checked extremely hard, showing you what a Stanley Cup-winning team does in terms of the defending and checking.”
The teams traded the game’s only goals in the first period as goalies Ilya Samsonov and Alexander Georgiev came up with ooh-and-ahh-inducing aves, none bigger than Samsonov stopping a Valeri Nichushkin short-handed breakaway in the second period, and an Evan Rodrigues one-timer in the third.
“He made some great saves for us, kept us in the game,” Matthews said of Samsonov. “We gave up a breakaway, some odd-man rushes and he came up big. He did everything he had to do. Those games can go either way. But I think we would like to maybe generate a little bit more offence and a little more zone time and some more dangerous high-end chances than we did.”
Rielly scored the 72nd goal of his career, ninth among Leafs defencemen.
“That’s what we need to see from Morgan in terms of jumping into those holes,” Keefe said. “Be that guy off the puck, who can be a threat for us offensively. And I thought that he played hard and defended well.”
Mitch Marner fed him the pass and moved into the top 10 of the Leafs’ all-time scorers. Marner has 541 career points, 19 behind Ted Kennedy.
Marner factored on the game-opening goal for the 19th time this season, which trails only MacKinnon (20) for the most among NHL players this season.
The chat before the game was all about Matthews, who had been quietly battling a sore hand, which may be the main reason he is well off his pace of a year ago. Still, he says that’s not the issue. “This was much earlier in the season,” he said. “There is really not too much into it. Feeling good now and that’s all that matters.”
The Avalanche, winners of nine of their last 13 games entering the game, have been playing more like the defending Stanley Cup champions than the team the Leafs handled 6-2 on Dec. 31. The game could have been viewed as a measuring stick but Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe wasn’t biting.
“We’ve had no shortage of difficult matchups and difficult games here recently, today is another one, and there’s more coming here for us,” he said. “We’re at a stretch of the schedule where you’ve got to be real good. And Colorado’s definitely playing more like you would have expected them to get to in terms of their quality of play.”
The game ended a run of four games for the Leafs against the four best teams creating offence off the rush, New Jersey, Edmonton and Buffalo were the others.
True to form, the first period had a bit of a track meet feel, though that’s not how the goals were produced.
Keefe continued to play just 11 forwards and reworked his top line, putting Calle Järnkrok out with Marner and Matthews. It paid off with the game’s first goal, Järnkrok dug the puck out to Marner who fed Rielly for a 1-0 lead. Colorado pulled even when Mikko Rantanen’s intended pass through the slot banked off Jake McCabe to fool Ilya Samsonov on the power play.
Two ex-Leafs were in the Avalanche lineup. Dennis Malgin was on the second line due to an injury to Artturi Lehkonen. Alex Galchenyuk, last seen passing the puck in overtime to the wrong team in the 2021 playoffs, was called up from the minors.
Malgin has six goals in his first 26 games in Colorado, after scoring twice in 23 with the Leafs.
“He’s been great, a skilled player, can skate and make plays with the puck,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “Scoring didn’t come easy for him here in Toronto, and when he came to us. But he’s gotten some confidence, had some hot streaks. He clearly thinks the game like a top-six forward, and has that ability. When we need a guy, he’s been the guy to go up and help create some offence.”
Defenceman Luke Schenn skated in the Scotiabank Arena as a Leaf for the first time since April 5, 2012.
“They changed up the stall colours a little bit,” he said. “I noticed that. And the big screen where we do video, that used to be the goalie stalls. A lot of it’s pretty familiar.”
Schenn likely won’t be in the lineup until the weekend, needing to get up to speed after remaining in Vancouver for the birth of his third child, a girl, Romee Grace Schenn.
“Baby is good,” he said. “It’s been a crazy couple of weeks with everything leading up to the trade deadline. You throw a birth into the mix. Obviously, things are a little hectic at home, but everything went smooth. My wife (Jessica) and new daughter doing great. And they’re in Vancouver and looking forward to hopefully getting down here in a couple weeks.”
Also making an appearance on the ice was Ryan O’Reilly, skating on his own prior to the morning skate. “He’s been feeling good,” Keefe said. “I’ve seen him bouncing around the facilities and feeling good since the surgery. Today was the scheduled day for him to get back on the ice. So everything is progressing. It was more just getting the legs moving.”
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