Did the Colorado Avalanche play their best defensive game of the season on Wednesday night? I think so.
Heading into Toronto, where the Maple Leafs were 24-7-4 coming into the game, the Avalanche knew they needed to tighten things up. They did exactly that, and walked away with a 2-1 shootout victory.
As with every game, you take the good with the bad, so time to take a look at the pluses and the minuses in the game against the Maple Leafs.
+ Defensive Clinic
Far and away the best defensive game the Avalanche this season, especially when you consider the opponent. The Avalanche really slowed the Maple Leafs down through the neutral zone, and didn’t allow them to enter the offensive zone with any speed. The Maple Leafs finished with only three high-danger scoring chances.
This team is still missing some important players, and against the Leafs, they adjusted. Jared Bednar deserves a lot of credit for the game plan, and team executed it perfectly.
+ Lars Eller
It’s really looks like Eller is starting to trust his instincts more, and the team is benefitting. Once again, Eller had dominant possession numbers, as the Avalanche controlled 76.19% of the shot attempts with him on the ice.
His most impressive play came in the second period. Jack Johnson had broken his stick in the corner, and with the long change, it could have been a long shift for the Avalanche in their own end. Instead, Eller outmuscled a Leafs forward in the corner, and just overpowered everyone around him to get the puck to center ice. He dumped it in, allowing everyone to change, but he wasn’t done there. He chased the puck into the corner and put a shot on net, forcing Samsonov to freeze the puck.
Not only did he get the Avalanche out of their own end, but he created an offensive zone face-off out of it. He looks a heck of a lot more comfortable with the team. Now, we just wait and see if the offense follows.
+ Bowen Byram
The young defenseman, who has a beer coming out this weekend, looked ready for the spotlight in Toronto. It seemed like every time he was matched up with Auston Matthews, he came away with the puck. A big-time performance from the 21 year old defensively.
– Evan Rodrigues
Missed chances offensively (I think he missed the net by about 8 feet in the first period when he was all alone) and not one, but two penalties. Late in the game, you could see the staff was looking for a more dependable player on that top line, and moved Nieto there to switch things up.
Rodrigues has been better the last few games, so hopefully he’s able to bounce back against Ottawa. Without Lehkonen, they’ll certainly need him to be much better.
+ Alexandar Georgiev
Say what you will about the only Leafs goal, but if you give a talented shooter nothing but time, they are going to pick their spot. Do you want to see a big save there? Absolutely, but I put more of that on the sloppy defense. That was probably the only time all night you could say that.
After that, Georgiev shut it down. He made a big save on Rielly on the powerplay in the second, and had nice stops on Nylander and McCabe in the third. Then, in the shootout, his quickness was on display. Three very talented Leafs shooters were given nothing, and he hung with them every step of the way.
Now, does he get the night off against Ottawa? I think so. You can’t run him into the ground with no Francouz. And frankly, he’s earned a break.
+ The Penalty Kill
The Maple Leafs entered the game with the second best powerplay in the league, the Avalanche took away a lot of what they wanted to do. Every time Matthews had the puck, the Avalanche took the Marner option away, with Devon Toews usually covering the passing lane with his stick. I don’t remember Matthews getting a good look off with the man advantage all night long.
The Avalanche gave up their first powerplay goal in 17 attempts on Monday against Montreal, so it’s nice to see them bounce back against a much tougher opponent.
+ Taking the Crowd Out of it
I know that Toronto isn’t the best crowd in the league, because a lot of executives end up buying the seats, but the crowd was just not into that game at all. If you completely take a crowd out of the game, then you take away a big part of the home-ice advantage. By giving the Maple Leafs nothing offensively, the Avalanche eliminated that home-ice advantage. They did that a lot in the playoffs last year…
+ Mikko Rantanen
I don’t think MacKinnon had his best game overall, but I really liked what Rantanen was doing. He hit Rodrigues all alone in the third for a chance to take the lead, and put an absurd move on Bunting in the first period to create a scoring chance for himself. Yeah, his goal was a little flukey, but when you play well, sometimes you get a nice bounce here and there. He’s up to 44 goals on the season, and 50 is within reach.