Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs woke up from a nap in Phoenix and laid a beating on the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche by a score of 6-2. The Maple Leafs won because they were simply better on the night than the Avalanche. With the win, they ended the month of December with an 8-3-1 record. No doubt there was a New Year’s toast or two after the victory.
During the game, the Maple Leafs’ systems just looked to be working better than the systems the Avalanche utilized. The Maple Leafs covered the ice better than the Avalanche. They overwhelmingly won battles for rebounds and had the edge in turnovers. And, when there was a race for a loose puck, the Maple Leafs seemed to win it.
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Toronto’s transition game was on its best behavior. In every way the Maple Leafs looked sluggish against the Arizona Coyotes, but they looked crisp against the Avalanche. All in all, it seemed as if the wrong team was troubled by the thin air of the Mile High City.
In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll look at some of the player news from last night’s game.
Item One: Matt Murray Redeems Himself Against the Avalanche
Until last night’s game, the deployment of goalies was that Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray had been trading off starts. However, after his subpar outing in Arizona against the Coyotes, the Maple Leafs’ coaching staff decided to give Murray a second start in succession against the Avalanche. It was a wise choice as it turned out.
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On Thursday night (Dec. 29), Murray suffered a loss when he gave up four goals on only 21 shots as his Maple Leafs tanked the game by a 6-3 score. But he was on his game last night. Of the two goals surrendered in the 6-2 win, the one that bounced off Auston Matthews’ skate was as fluky as they come. It wasn’t Murray’s fault.
Even with that fluky goal, Murray still made 26 saves on 28 shots. His team made it easy for him in the early going when they staked him to a 2-0 lead; and, then they kept adding more. When the Avalanche began to generate more shots on the net, Murray stopped them.
The 28-year-old Murray’s record is now 9-3-2 in 14 games; his goals-against-average is 2.44; and his save percentage is .920. The Coyotes game was, it seems, an aberration. In three of his past four starts, he’s given up two or fewer goals.
Item Two: Michael Bunting Keeps Scoring Goals
Michael Bunting had scored his 100th point (including his eighth goal of the season) in the team’s 4-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 20. On Dec. 22, he scored his ninth goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. Last night he added two more goals to push his total to 11 on the season.
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Curiously, however, Bunting has not registered an assist since Dec. 8 against the Los Angeles Kings. That’s seven goals scored in his past nine games, but no assists over that same time frame. The 27-year-old has totalled 11 goals and 15 assists (for 26 points) in his 37 games played during the 2022-23 season. He’s not up to last season’s pace yet, but he’s getting close.
Item Three: Pierre Engvall Has Began His Own Point Streak
Somewhat under the radar, 26-year-old Pierre Engvall now has put together a five-game point-scoring streak. Last night, he scored his seventh goal of the season (to go along with seven assists).
Even better perhaps, the third line of Alex Kerfoot, David Kampf, and Engvall has been one of the team’s better lines for several games now. The second line has improved with the edition of Calle Jarnkrok, who’s playing smart and successful hockey on left wing. Right now, the Maple Leafs’ four-line rotation is as good as I can remember it ever being in the four seasons I’ve covered the team.
Item Four: TJ Brodie Scores His Second Goal of the Season
TJ Brodie usually plays a quiet game. That’s good because few fans notice a defenseman who doesn’t make mistakes. Last night Brodie was more noticeable when he scored his second goal of the season. (from “The guys got it done.’ Leafs close out 2022 with peak performance in Denver,” Rosie DiManno, Hamilton Spectator, 12/31/22).
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In truth, the game seemed close until Matthews hit the back of the net and then Brodie followed suit 24 seconds later. That put the team up by a score of 5-2 and took the mile-high air out of the building. It was only Brodie’s sixth point of the season. However, he’s continuing to eat up minutes to the tune of 21:23 per game on the blue line.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The Maple Leafs have a few days off now. They head home to play the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday. That game is followed by one on Thursday against the Seattle Kraken. Finally, the team finishes its home stand on Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings – a classic Original Six Hockey Night in Canada meeting.
For all the talk about the Maple Leafs’ high-powered offense, they have fast become one of the NHL’s top defensive teams. Last night they simply took a good team like the Avalanche to the blackboard for a lesson in how winning hockey could be played.
As I noted earlier in the post, the Maple Leafs’ four lines are working well. Few other teams I’ve watched this season seem able to throw out a fourth line that can hem the opposition in its own end, force a stoppage in play, and then bring in one of the top two lines for an offensive zone faceoff.
This team is working better than last season’s team. That is unless they play the Coyotes, it seems.