Nathan MacKinnon leads Avalanche over Maple Leafs 2-1 in a shootout
TORONTO — Nathan MacKinnon saw his five-game goal streak come to an end Wednesday.
The Avalanche sniper still put the puck in the opposing net to clinch another crucial victory for the reigning — and surging — Stanley Cup champions.
MacKinnon scored the only goal of the shootout as Colorado put in a stifling defensive effort to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1.
The lightning-quick centre assisted on Mikko Rantanen's power-play effort in the first period to stretch his point streak to six games before sneaking a shootout attempt past Ilya Samsonov.
"Been playing awesome," Avalanche defenceman Bowen Byram said of MacKinnon, who entered with 15 goals in his last 15 contests. "He's the guy that our team follows. When he's going, I feel like everyone else is sharper."
Alexandar Georgiev made 17 saves for injury-ravaged Colorado (38-22-6), which has really found its game since the all-star break to climb within five points of the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars with two games in hand.
"That dedication to the way we have to play to have success is the key to it," Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said. "Some nights we're as good as we want to be. Seems like recently we've wanted to win these hockey games. We know they're important. Winning the division isn't the be all, end all. But certainly to have short-term goals like that and chase down the teams that are in front of us is part of it.
"It's part of playing with a little bit of pressure, even if it's self-induced."
Morgan Rielly scored in regulation for Toronto (40-18-9), which got 28 stops from Samsonov in a tight-checking, low-event matchup.
"There wasn't a whole lot that we gave up," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "They checked extremely hard to show you what a Stanley Cup-winning team does in terms of the defending.
"They're well-known for the offence that they can generate with their elite players, but they defend extremely hard and make it difficult on you to get to their net."
After a frantic overtime that saw terrific chances at both ends, MacKinnon beat Samsonov on a nice deke on the Avalanche's second attempt of the shootout.
Georgiev then denied Mitch Marner to seal both points for the visitors as Colorado improved to 4-4 in shootouts. Toronto dropped to 0-2.
"Just finding ways to win, playing smart hockey," said the Avalanche goaltender, who was brought in during the off-season after Darcy Kuemper left in free agency. "We've been playing really good lately. We spend so much time on offensive zone."
Coming off Monday's 4-3 home loss to Buffalo where Toronto held a 2-0 lead late in the second period, the Leafs opened the scoring three minutes into the first when Rielly scored his third after chiming an earlier shot off the iron.
The Avalanche responded on a man advantage later in the period when Rantanen's pass went in off Toronto defenceman Jake McCabe for his 44th.
Samsonov stopped Valeri Nichushkin on a short-handed breakaway in the second before Cale Makar nearly went end-to-end on a breathtaking rush, but saw the puck trickle just wide of Toronto's goal.
Georgiev matched his Russian counterpart at the other end by foiling Rielly on a power play and Calle Jarnkrok from in close to keep things even through 40 minutes.
After the Leafs killed off two penalties early in the third, William Nylander and Auston Matthews had good chances on Georgiev to set up MacKinnon's clincher after 65 minutes.
"We're just trying to build," Byram said. "We're just trying to keep it going and build our way into the playoffs.
"It's not like a light switch you can turn on and off."
The big winger's 44 goals are the most by a Finnish-born player since Teemu Selanne scored 48 times back in 2006-07.
"There's still a lot of games left," Rantanen said with a smile. "I try to help the team, and if I can do it that way, I'm glad to do that."
Luke Schenn returned to Scotiabank Arena as a member of the Leafs for the first time in more than a decade.
Acquired from the Vancouver Canucks prior to the trade deadline, the veteran defenceman rejoined the club after his wife recently gave birth to the couple's third child.
The Leafs selected Schenn, who didn't dress against Colorado, with the fifth overall pick in 2008 before trading him to Philadelphia in 2012.
"Coming into this dressing room, it's surreal," the 33-year-old said Wednesday morning. "You appreciate what it means to play in Toronto, but not to the extent I do now."
Avalanche: Visit Ottawa on Thursday.
Leafs: Host Carolina on Friday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press