Having won two games in a row for the first time since the all-star break, the Colorado Avalanche tried to make it an official winning streak and position themselves as the “spoiler” as the Toronto Maple Leafs came to Denver for an inter-conference match-up Thursday night. The Avs skated hard until the final horn, but trailed most of the game and their comeback fell short as the Leafs left the ice with a much needed 4-3 victory.
The first period was very physical, with both teams aggressively taking turns landing pummeling hits on each other.
The Avalanche struck first on the scoreboard. With the Maple Leafs on a power play, the Avs took control of the puck, drove it all the way down the ice, and from the side boards Daniel Winnick tossed the puck towards the net. After bouncing around the crease, the puck eventually deflected into the net for a shorthanded goal that gave the Avs an early lead.
About midway through the opening frame, however, Mikhail Grabovski snatched a loose puck, rushed to the net on a breakaway, and launched a rocket slap shot at Avs goaltender Brian Elliot. Although Elliot made the initial stop, he surrendered a big rebound that a well-positioned Nikolai Kulemin knocked into the net to tie the game at 1-1.
With just five seconds left in the opening period and with the Leafs attacking the Avs’ zone, from behind the net Kulemin wrapped the puck around and flicked it at the net. It trickled passed Elliot for Kulemin’s second goal of the night, giving the Leafs a 2-1 lead.
“I thought we got off to a good start,” said Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco. “We got that short-handed goal and we hoped that that would ignite the bench and give us some energy, but — the way it worked out — it didn’t. And then they get that late goal at the end of the period; that’s a tough one to give up there at the end of a period.”
Midway through the second stanza, Toronto struck again as the Leafs unleashed a ferocious surge of offensive pressure. After passing the puck around the zone, Tyler Bozak released a slap shot from the top of the right circle that flew past Elliot and into the far side of the net to extend the Leafs lead to 3-1.
A couple of minutes later, the Avs went on a power play attack due to a holding penalty by Leafs forward Tim Brent. While enjoying the advantage, the Avalanche won a face off in Leafs territory, Avs defender Erik Johnson released a slap shot off of Leaf goalie James Reimer’s chest, and Ryan O’Reilly knocked the rebound into the net to bring the Avs within one.
Just three minutes into the third period, the Leafs capitalized on a power play opportunity. The tally came courtesy of Phil Kessel, who received a sharp centering pass from Joffrey Lupul and one-timed the puck into the back of the net to cushion the lead at 4-2.
With eight minutes left to play and with the Avs growing desperate to score, Matt Duchene rose to answer the call to extended his scoring streak to six games. Johnson set up the goal by launching a rope slap shot from the post that bounced off of Reimer’s pads, and a perfectly-placed Duchene promptly slammed the rebound into net to cut the deficit in half at 4-3.
The Avs played with intense determination during the final minutes of the game and they even had some good opportunities to net a tying goal, however they were unable to connect on shots, the comeback fell short, and they left the ice to a disappointing loss.
“We found a way to plow back into it,” said Sacco. “We had a couple of chances when we pulled the goalie with the empty net, but we weren’t able to capitalize on it. So I liked the fact that they played until the end, but catch-up hockey is tough to play in this league; you can’t do it often and it’s hard to come back all the time.”
The Avs have seemingly been fighting from behind in every game since their post-all-star break plummet.
“We just won two games,” said Elliot. “We have to take positives, and we almost came back here. Now we just have to focus on getting the lead, keeping it, and not allowing teams to get back in it.”
The Maple Leafs are still alive to make the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and were clearly more desperate for a win than the Avs were to be the spoiler. In fact, all of the teams that the Avs face off against for the remainder of the season will be playing with an intense sense of urgency to make the playoffs.
“That’s what you want,” said Elliot. “You want to play competitive hockey. We don’t want to be just lackadaisical here at the last part of the year. We were at a low point, and now we’re climbing a little bit, getting some confidence and our guys are scoring. Hopefully we can just keep that going.”