No Valeri Nichushkin, no problem for the Colorado Avalanche.
Okay, there were some problems, but all things considered, a shorthanded Avalanche squad worked their butts off, battling back from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs by a score of 5-3. It looked like it was going to be ugly early, but the Avalanche stuck with it, controlling the majority of the shot attempts, and their stars, as they typically do, came through in the clutch for the road team.
Jonathan Drouin, Mikko Rantanen, Andrew Cogliano, Nathan MacKinnon, and Ross Colton scored the goals for the Avalanche. On the same day he was named an NHL All-Star, Alexandar Georgiev stopped 26 shots, none bigger than a save early in the second to keep his team in it.
The Avalanche have historically struggled without Valeri Nichushkin in the lineup. I’m not sure if the first period was because they were without Nichushkin, or because they were playing fourth liners on the second line, but it wasn’t pretty.
Colorado’s top line, as you would expect, created some chances offensively, and did have some extended shifts in the offensive zone, but couldn’t find the back of the net. Actually, they struggled to hit the net in general. Shot attempts weren’t a problem. Colorado actually out-attempted the Maple Leafs, but only 8 of their 27 attempts hit the net.
Toronto got on the scoresheet first with a pretty flukey goal. The Maple Leafs were gifted an offensive zone face-off after Josh Manson iced the puck, and they took advantage. Logan O’Connor’s clearing attempt was held in the zone by Max Domi, and Domi floated a shot towards the net. It looked harmless, but bounced off the chest of Manson and into the back of the net, giving Toronto the early lead.
The second goal from Toronto came at the end of a long shift from the top line. Morgan Rielly was ready to dump the puck in and get off, but his dump-in was caught by Toews. Rather than back off, he attacked, poking the puck away from Toews, and giving himself a breakaway. The All-Star defenseman backhanded a puck over Georgiev’s glove, and just like that, it was 2-0 Toronto.
They weren’t done.
Coming out of a TV timeout, the Avalanche started their fourth line. That line consisted of two natural defensemen (Kurtis MacDermid and Caleb Jones) and Fredrik Olofsson. Not ideal, and the Leafs quickly made it 3-0. Jones failed to clear the puck out of the zone, and Giordano threw a puck at the net. Georgiev’s couldn’t control the rebound, and chaos ensued. The Avalanche collapsed down low, but forgot about Timothy Liljegren. The Leafs defenseman found the loose puck, and made it 3-0.
Colorado had their chances, but heading into the intermission down 3-0 with the lineup was probably worst-case scenario considering the lineup they were using.
But you know what the Avalanche have that other teams don’t? Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and a few other players that are playing at a high level right now.
Every comeback has to start somewhere, and Colorado’s comeback started with a big save by their goaltender. Kurtis MacDermid, while trying to bump the puck back to his linemate, turned it over, giving the Leafs a prime opportunity. Georgiev sprawled to his right to make a huge leg save, keeping the score at 3-0. A few minutes later, the Avalanche got their first powerplay of the game, and a strange decision by the Leafs allowed Colorado to get back into the game.
After winning the face-off, Ross Colton took a stick to the mouth, drawing another penalty. Nathan MacKinnon tried to give the puck to the Leafs for a whistle and a long 5-on-3. Instead, T.J. Brodie decided he didn’t want to touch the puck. It landed right on the stick of Colton, who hit Drouin in front for a powerplay goal, and Colorado had life.
The Avalanche continued to push, controlling the shot attempts again in the second, with the majority of the push coming from their big guns. Those big guns finally broke through at even strength, taking advantage of a Maple Leafs turnover with under seven minutes remaining in the second.
Toronto essentially handed the puck to Sam Girard at the point, and the defenseman walked in for a shot. His attempt was blocked, but it bounced right in front to Rantanen, who outworked the defenseman covering him and put the puck into a wide open net. The lead for the Leafs was down to just one. They held that lead heading into the intermission.
The top line was doing a lot of the heavy lifting for Colorado, and they nearly tied the game up on a fantastic powerplay five minutes into the third, but it was the depth that evened things up for the road team.
Andrew Cogliano, playing in his hometown, picked up the rebound of a blocked Josh Manson attempt. He didn’t get everything on his shot, and it was a little wobbly, but a screened Martin Jones couldn’t pick up the puck. It floated into the left side of the net, and after being down 3-0, Colorado had come all the way back to tie things up.
The Avalanche did get another powerplay, which angered the fans. They felt Colorado had gotten away with some infractions, and they might be correct. Josh Manson gave Auston Matthews a good shot in the corner that went uncalled, and that actually woke up the quiet Toronto crowd. Suddenly, it felt a little bit like a playoff game.
With the game tied 3-3, both teams decided to go best-on-best with under five minutes remaining in the game. The Matthews line generated some solid zone time in Colorado’s end, but couldn’t beat Georgiev. With some tired Leafs legs on the ice, Nathan MacKinnon picked up the puck and the top line for Colorado was off to the races. Jonathan Drouin entered the zone and dropped it to Rantanen, who sent it cross-ice to MacKinnon. The Hart Trophy candidate got the Leafs defender to leave his feet, and just waited him out. Once the lane was clear, he fired a wrist shot towards the net, beating Jones, and giving Colorado the 4-3 lead.
As they’ve done time and time again this season, the Avalanche showed that no lead is safe against them. Ross Colton added an empty net goal, and Colorado walked out of Toronto with a 5-3 victory. The only downside to the win was the Avalanche losing veteran defenseman Jack Johnson to a lower-body injury late. He had been playing through pain lately, but it must have been too much for him.
Colorado will now head to Montreal to take on the Canadiens on Monday night. That game starts at 5:00 PM MST.