The Maple Leafs went toe to toe with the Stanley Cup champions for 65 minutes on Wednesday before losing to the Avalanche 2-1 in a shootout at Scotiabank Arena.
Nathan MacKinnon scored the lone shootout goal in three shots against Ilya Samsonov; Toronto was unable to beat Alexandar Georgiev in its three.
It was the second of two matchups between the teams this season. Toronto won the first 6-2 on New Year’s Eve in Colorado.
The Maple Leafs are 40-18-9 and far in arrears of Boston and three points ahead of Tampa Bay for second in the Atlantic Division. The Avs are 38-22-6 and third in the Central Division.
Colorado had won 10 of its past 14 and is 18-5-3 over its past 26. It has also won six of the past seven on the road.
The Avalanche had a tough start to the 2022-23 campaign thanks in part to a slew of injuries to top players, including MacKinnon, fellow forward Valeri Nichushkin, defencemen Cale Makar, Bowen Byram, Josh Manson and a host of others. The team’s captain, Gabriel Landeskog, had knee surgery and has yet to play.
“It has been a challenge this year,” Jared Bednar, the Avalanche’s head coach, said following Wednesday’s morning skate. Colorado won the Cup final over the Lightning in six games last summer. It was its third league championship and first since 2001. “Getting ready to play to the same level as the year before right out of the gate is difficult.
“I feel we were pretty comfortable where we were at but we were not pushing as hard as we could have. Hopefully our best hockey is yet to come and we can get healthier than we have all season.”
The teams traded goals in the first period.
Left wide open in front of the net, Morgan Rielly got Toronto on the board first with a crisp wrist shot that eluded Georgiev into the lower right corner less than four minutes after the puck drop. Mitch Marner and Calle Jarnkrok picked up assists – it was the ninth in four games for Marner.
Mikko Rantanen was credited with his 44th goal with 5:52 remaining in the period on a shot that caromed off Maple Leafs defenceman Jake McCabe and past Samsonov. The goal was scored with Mark Giordano in the penalty box for slashing. Assists were awarded to Makar and MacKinnon.
It was the first goal McCabe has scored since he joined Toronto in a trade with Chicago on Feb. 27 – but it was for the wrong team.
Toronto was able to muster only four shots on goal in the second, but one was from point-blank range by Jarnkrok but turned away.
The Maple Leafs collected two penalties to start the third but Colorado failed to generate any good chances. As the period wore on, both goalies made tough saves – Georgiev on a backhand by William Nylander on a 2 on 1, Samsonov in close on Evan Rodrigues.
Colorado got four shots off in the five-minute overtime period and Toronto failed to hit the net with any. Marner bounced a shot off the goal post.
Rantanen is now tied for third in goals in the NHL with Leon Draisaitl, who is a dozen behind Edmonton teammate Connor McDavid. David Pastrnak of Boston is second with 46.
Rantanen has been Colorado’s MVP. He leads the team in goals and is second with 79 points in 66 games. MacKinnon has missed time but is Colorado’s top scorer with 29 goals and 82 points in 55 games. Colorado is 9-3-1 in its past 13 games and five points behind the first-place Dallas Stars in the Central Division with two games in hand.
Goergiev stopped 17 of 18 shots overall, while Samsonov, making his first start in a week, stopped 28 of 29 in the defeat.
“It was a good game,” Rielly said after netting his third goal of the season. “Both teams tried to play well defensively.”
He clanged one shot off the crossbar before he put Toronto on the board off a nice pass from Marner.
“You know the pass is coming before he even gets it,” Rielly said. “He is amazing with what he does. We are lucky to have him.”
Bednar was cautious in his approach to the game. He knew the Maple Leafs would present a tough challenge.
“They have been a great team the last few years and they are great again,” Bednar said. “I like the guys they have added and what they have provided. For us, it will be a challenge. I don’t think it is something we should shy away from. It is a team to measure ourselves against.”
Georgiev is 14-3-2 in his past 19 starts and 10-2-2 in his past 14 assignments. He is 30-14-5 overall. Samsonov is 23-8-3.
Toronto’s next game is Friday at home against the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina is 44-14-8 and in first place in the Metropolitan Division.
“I thought both teams played well and defended hard,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs coach, said afterward. “There was not a lot of offence out there.
“I thought we stayed with it. We definitely had a shot here or there that could have made a difference for us.”