No Toronto Maple Leafs fan likes hearing the words “It was 4-1”. Although, it hurts way less when you hear them after a regular-season game in January to a team in the opposite conference.
The Maple Leafs managed to get the game to overtime and secure the point, but a strong third period by the Colorado Avalanche helped lock down the victory to cap off a resilient effort start to finish. The Maple Leafs were playing without the services of Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall, who were both added into the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol on Friday. As a result, Kyle Clifford and Brett Seney drew into the lineup.
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The Leafs have been on a torrid pace as of late, with a record of 20-4-2 in their last 26 games and coming off a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers. You never want to blow a lead, but truthfully, the game tonight was an easier pill to swallow than similar games in the past. It was one of those efforts where the Avalanche pushed, and pushed, and pushed until the Maple Leafs couldn’t hold them off anymore. Most times, it’s a matter of taking their foot off the gas pedal, whereas tonight they never really had their foot on it despite the early lead. Although there’s lots to talk about as always, here are three key takeaways from tonight’s game.
Maple Leafs’ Kerfoot Makes Immediate Impact Following Promotion
One of the most slept-on storylines of the season thus far has been the drastic improvement in forward, Alex Kerfoot’s play. With Marner missing tonight’s game as I mentioned earlier, Kerfoot saw a promotion to the top line alongside Auston Matthews and Michael Bunting. His response was a goal and two assists against his former team, both assists coming on a pair of Matthews goals. This brings him to eight points in his last three games and 24 points in 33 games on the season.
To say Kerfoot’s tenure in Toronto has been a roller coaster would be an understatement. Coming off a 42-point season with the Avalanche in 2018-19, Kerfoot came to Toronto expected to continue that sort of production, but he never really found much of an offensive touch until the 2020-21 playoffs. There, he was one of their most consistent offensive players with five points in seven games.
Despite a whirlwind of a summer that saw his name floating around expansion draft talks, Kerfoot wound up remaining a Leaf. He’s carried his newfound offensive game into 2021-22, playing in mostly a top-six role. While Kerfoot has been utilized as the third line centre on multiple occasions as well, it’s clear that he’s most comfortable when he’s playing on the wing. With his performance last night, I’d say it’s a safe assumption that he’ll stick on that top line at least while Marner is out.
Maple Leafs’ Ritchie Responds After Clearing Waivers
In a move that most fans didn’t see coming but also weren’t surprised about, the Maple Leafs placed forward Nick Ritchie on waivers on Thursday. With Ilya Mikheyev making a return to the lineup and scoring three goals in his first two games of 2022, the Maple Leafs had to make a quick call. And with a $2.5 million cap hit and only eight points in 30 games to date, Ritchie drew the short straw.
Given that he’s had limited production this season to go along with the term on his contract, it was obvious the Maple Leafs felt confident that Ritchie would clear. At the same time, it also gives them a little bit of cap relief. But with the additions of Marner and Engvall to the COVID-19 protocol, Ritchie didn’t go anywhere. And he responded the way I’d imagine head coach Sheldon Keefe wanted him to, scoring a second-period power-play goal.
Obviously, this point becomes moot seeing that the Maple Leafs coughed up the lead and ended up losing the game. But it remains that he needs to be performing like this on a night-to-night basis to keep his name in the loop for the team’s roster plans, and tonight was a good start for the Orangeville native.
Despite taking a dumb penalty towards the end of the third period that could have lost the Maple Leafs their point, Ritchie found himself getting involved in the play physically in a good way for most of the game. And if he wants to stay in the lineup, this will be a must for him.
Maple Leafs’ Campbell Does Everything to Keep the Team in the Game
If you missed the game and looked at the scoresheet, it would be easy to assume Jack Campbell had an off night with five goals against. But truth be told, without him, this game may have looked a lot more like the Maple Leafs’ 8-3 victory over Colorado in December, only they would have been on the receiving end of it.
Simply put, Campbell has been a godsend for the Maple Leafs this year and has given them exactly what they needed. A goaltender who can simply hold the fort down while the offense does the work. And through 40 minutes, that looked like it would end up being the case. But following a potential save of the year candidate, the Avalanche kept pushing and eventually, the ceiling caved in.
Still, despite letting in five goals, he made 44 saves while the Maple Leafs could only muster up 27 of their own. Heading into this game, Campbell was 5-0-1 in his last six road games with a goals-against average (GAA) of 1.47. So, while he wasn’t rock-solid tonight, he was the last line of defense against a Colorado team that had the pedal to the metal all game. The Maple Leafs managed to leave Gabriel Landeskog wide open with three defensemen on the ice for the third goal and Mikko Rantanen’s filthy pass to find JT Compher for the tying goal would be enough to fool any goalie.
Despite his five goals allowed, I feel like the outcome of that game would have been much different had Campbell not been there. Colorado had one of the best 60-minute efforts I’ve seen all season, and despite an early offensive outburst from the Maple Leafs, Campbell was a massive factor in securing the point.
Maple Leafs Will Stay Out West For Three Game Swing
In terms of the games ahead, the Maple Leafs will hit the road again to face the Vegas Golden Knights, Arizona Coyotes, and St. Louis Blues this week. It will be their second meeting of the season against Vegas following a 4-0 win in November, and their first time facing off against the Coyotes and Blues. They were originally supposed to face the Blues on Dec. 23, but that game was among the postponements around Christmas.
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With the first two games coming in the form of a back-to-back, expect Campbell to get the start once again on Tuesday against Vegas while Petr Mrazek gets the nod on Wednesday against Arizona. These starts aren’t confirmed yet, but given Mrazek’s injury-riddled season, I’d imagine Keefe would want to give Mrazek the easier assignment.
The Maple Leafs currently sit third in the Atlantic division behind the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning and will look to bounce back as they continue their road trip.
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Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.