In a game that was hyped as a possible Stanley Cup preview, the Colorado Avalanche made their first trip to Scotiabank Arena in two years and were beaten handily by the red-hot Toronto Maple Leafs. The contest had many storylines — Nathan MacKinnon returned to the lineup, Nazem Kadri returned to Toronto, the best offense against the second-best defense in the league — but the game was more or less over midway through the first period, after Toronto scored their third unanswered goal en route to an 8-3 victory.
The Maple Leafs were the faster, stronger, and hungrier team. Auston Matthews scored a hat trick, captain John Tavares had a goal and two assists, and Michael Bunting had three assists in the blowout that extended Toronto’s winning streak to five games, and a league-best 9-1-0 record in their last 10. The loss, their second in the last nine games, dropped the Avalanche to sixth place in the Central Division.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Avalanche’s Inept Defense
From the start of the contest, the Avalanche’s defense was chaotic and out of sync. This was glaringly evident on Toronto’s third goal when Matthews’ nifty flick of the stick beat Colorado’s backup goaltender Jonas Johansson high over his blocker. Matthews, considered a top-five player in the league, was left alone in the crease for several seconds, which became a theme of the night, as Matthews and Tavares were left unchecked in front of the Colorado net on subsequent goals.
Bowen Byram and Sam Girard had an especially tough night, playing out of position and losing loose puck battles deep in the defensive zone. All but one of the Avalanche defenders had a negative plus/minus, while Byram and Jack Johnson had a team-worst minus-3 on the night – Devon Toews was even, no easy feat in a game where his team surrendered eight goals.
Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar should consider shaking up his defensive pairings for tonight’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, the second in a back-to-back. He should reunite Byram and Erik Johnson, a pairing that worked well earlier this season. That would mean dropping Byram or Girard to the third pairing, but after last night’s performance, it would be hard to argue with the change.
Colorado Comeback Falls Short
After the Maple Leafs jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, Colorado answered with a one-timer from Girard with two seconds left in the first period. The Avalanche started the second period with renewed energy and scored halfway through the middle frame with a hard-working effort from Kadri and Valeri Nichushkin in front of the Maple Leafs’ net, cutting Toronto’s lead to a single goal. They seemed on the verge of taking control of the game.
But 47 seconds later, Travis Dermott fired a one-timer from the top of the right face-off circle past an unimpeded Johansson. He had a clear view of the play and simply got beat. The goal took the wind out of the Avalanche’s sails, and any hope of a comeback evaporated.
Colorado’s Goaltending Woes
The Avalanche’s starting goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, was scratched just hours before the contest with an upper-body injury. Whether or not the late call to start was to blame, Johansson turned in a sub-standard performance in relief.
“He wasn’t good,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of his goalie after the game. “Wasn’t good.”
At the other end, Maple Leafs’ goaltender Jack Campbell turned in a solid performance, stopping 28 of 31 shots. Campbell now has a goals-against average of 1.72 (fourth in the league) and a save percentage of .943 (third in the league).
With the severity of Kuemper’s injury unknown, Justus Annunen of the Colorado Eagles, the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, was called to backup Johansson. Annunen — named the AHL goaltender of the month for November, when he notched a .937 save percentage and a 5-1-2 record — arrived halfway through the game.
Had the Avalanche had a better rested and battle-tested goalie on the bench from the start of the game, it’s likely Johansson would have been pulled after the fourth or fifth goal. Instead, he was hung out to dry for the rest of the contest.
Colorado’s goaltending is in a state of flux. In addition to Kuemper, Johansson, and now Annunen, Pavel Francouz, the team’s number two goaltender, who has been sidelined with an ankle injury suffered in the preseason, has started a rehab assignment with the Eagles and could make his season debut in the next week.
Much will depend on the timetable for both Kuemper’s and Francouz’s return. When that’s known, the club’s executive vice president and general manager, Joe Sakic, will have decisions to make, notably, whether to put Johansson on waivers. After last night’s performance, that seems likely.
The Avalanche will try to right the ship as they square off against the struggling Canadiens on Thursday in Montreal.
Hockey dad, beer league hockey captain, rabid Avalanche fan. Author of five novels for young adults, including The Scar Boys, Life in a Fishbowl, and Hard Wired. Lives in Littleton, Colorado with two middle school-age kids, one awesome wife, and three pets. Voted least likely to break 100 on a golf course.