Maple Leafs focused on positives despite losing steam vs. Avalanche

Devon Toews scored the overtime winner as the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-4.

I Just Hope Both Teams Have Fun.

That was the wish one bipartisan fan scribbled on a bristol board and held aloft at Ball Arena in giddy anticipation of Saturday’s showdown between two of hockey’s superpowers.

Well, viewers certainly had a blast taking in the Colorado Avalanche’s thrilling 5-4 comeback overtime victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs -- a speedy, heavyweight tilt loaded with all-stars, scoring chances and incredible individual efforts.

“I take nothing but positive out of this game tonight,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, a rare but accurate statement after a blown 4-1 lead. “This is probably the loudest building that we've played in all year. So, we come out of playing in front of no fans and then you're into this. The response from our group to start the game, I thought, was outstanding.

“Would we have liked to get two points? Absolutely. Should we have had two points? Absolutely. But that's a very good team. To come out here on the road and get a point is good for our group.”

The Leafs started outstanding; the Avalanche finished even better.

And that fan? The one hoping everyone had fun?

He got his wish.

No Marner? No worries (at least, on offence)

The last time these two clubs met, on Dec. 1 in Toronto, a clean-shaven Auston Matthews erupted for a hat trick. Wingman Mitch Marner gathered the primary assist on two of his three strikes.

This time, Marner was holed up serving Day 3 of a COVID-19 quarantine (minor symptoms), so coach Sheldon Keefe unveiled a brand-new first line, flanking Matthews with Michael Bunting and Alexander Kerfoot.

That newly formed trio didn’t skip a beat, scoring thrice in the first period.

“We've had guys miss time, and we've gone on our pause, and I don't think we've really let it impact us too much,” Morgan Rielly said. “We've been pretty resilient.”

Matthews operated like a player possessed, conjuring a variety of scoring chances, busting up plays in the D-zone, and scoring twice in a span of 33 seconds.

Matthews’ second goal chased Avs starter Darcy Kuemper after the goalie had faced just nine shots, and the centreman’s 45th career multi-goal effort rates just one shy of Alex Ovechkin (46) for the most since he entered the league in 2016.

Matthews & Co. accomplished all this while drawing a steady diet of the hottest line in hockey: Gabriel Landeskog–Nathan MacKinnon–Mikko Rantanen.

With third-line checking wingers Ondrej Kase (injured) and Pierre Engvall (COVID) also sidelined, Keefe was content to throw some difficult defensive matchups to his elite forwards.

“Our top two lines are going to have to take on a lot more of that, which is fine,” Keefe said. “They've been doing that here a lot of late as well, and they're more than capable of doing so.”

Kerfoot’s career year continues

The former Avalanche forward thrived in his temporary promotion to the top line, factoring in all three of the Leafs’ first-period goals.

While the home side opened the contest with seven straight shots on net, Kerfoot drifted in from his off (right) wing and one-timed a Bunting feed past Kuemper from the high slot, opening the scoring with Toronto’s opening shot.

Kerfoot regularly kills penalties and has now taken shifts on all four lines and in all three forward spots this season. A dutiful, do-anything trooper, he’s relied upon by the coaching staff to fill any hole necessary.

“Alex Kerfoot was unbelievable tonight,” Keefe said. “It's so valuable for us to have a player like that.

“He really is just here to serve the team. What the team needs, he's all for it. He's going to give his absolute best to help the team win on that particular day. And those players are extremely important to have. We've got a great level of respect for the way Kerf has handled that.”

Remember: Toronto exposed him in the Seattle expansion draft, and the Kraken did not take him.

Kerfoot -- who played centre almost exclusively before turning pro -- has responded with the most defensively responsible and offensively productive season of his career.

He leads all Leafs with a plus-19 rating.

“My role has changed a lot,” Kerfoot reflected. “Early on in my career, I forced a lot of plays and tried to kind of push offence in a lot of scenarios, when there really wasn't anything there. And that led to a lot of breakdowns defensively. I think that, for the most part, I have eliminated a lot of that out of my game, which has led to less glaring mistakes and maybe a more responsible game.”

Jack Campbell is Ozzie Smith

It doesn’t matter that the Maple Leafs were playing the best offensive team in hockey. Or that they surrendered more shots (51) than they had all season. Or that they were missing three key defensive forwards and penalty-killers and took four penalties -- and killed them all.

They lost, so it must be Campbell’s fault. At least, that’s how Campbell’s self-flagellating mind works.

“If I play up to my standard, we win that game every time,” said Campbell, after making 46 stops, including this one.

Matthews offers the logical counterpoint: “Soup played unbelievable tonight. Honestly. I mean, some of the saves he made tonight, like, one of them's gonna be Save of the Year, honestly. I think he did everything he could. That's a really good team over there, and obviously they're not going to go away.”

Oh, baby, are the Avalanche rolling

It was 3-0.

It was 4-1.

And still, the Maple Leafs lost the game, their first when strolling out of the second intermission holding a lead.

The way Keefe explains it, the group exerted so much into the first half of the high-altitude, high-intensity game, they were gassed by the third period.

Colorado’s relentless big guns took advantage. Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar each threw down multi-point nights. Nathan MacKinnon scored once but put 11 other pucks on Campbell, extending his point streak to a silly 13 games.

Late first- and second-period goals kept the Avalanche within hunting distance, and they tied the thing with an explosive third.

Devon Toews buried the OT winner after working a give-and-go around Matthews, caught at the end of an exhausting 72-second shift of 3-on-3.

The Avs swooped in last minute and stole the show like Jim Carrey does on The Weeknd album.

“We haven't played a game like this in quite a while, with that pace, that energy. It's been a long time,” Keefe said. “But I thought our guys gave it everything they had here today. I needed to get more out of the bottom six of our bench tonight.”

Toronto’s bottom five forwards all skated fewer than 11 minutes.

“Really every time they hopped over the boards, [Jared Bednar] was looking to get MacKinnon's line against them. So it's harder to get all four of our lines into the rotation. I thought that took its toll on us as the game wore on,” Keefe explained.

“Our guys put a lot into the first half of this game here today, and we just didn't have enough gas left to push back when we needed to.”

No dull moments for Nick Ritchie

Ritchie cleared waivers Friday and scored on the power-play Saturday, thanks to a sweet touch pass by Wayne Simmonds in the crease.

“Huge goal for him. I'm sure it does a lot for his confidence,” Keefe said. “You see how happy the guys were for him on the bench.”

Ritchie’s redemption was undermined, however, by a sloppy neutral-zone interference penalty with less than three minutes on the clock, forcing Toronto to white-knuckle its way to a point.

“It's a tough penalty at the end there. You can't do that,” Keefe said. “At the same time, I thought we had reached a point in the game where things were being let go both ways, and that was a tough one to have there to have to kill.”

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