MacKinnon, Rantanen make the difference as Avalanche edge Leafs in shootout

Here's who looked good, who struggled, and everything else you need to know from Colorado's win over Toronto on Wednesday night.

On their ascent to hockey’s pinnacle last season, the Colorado Avalanche broke their opponents’ will by playing at an unmatched, hyperspeed pace. The defending champions often create the optical illusion of making their adversaries appear like they’re playing in quicksand.

The Avalanche did just that to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ usually-potent offensive attack on Wednesday, as Colorado came away with a 2-1 shootout win at Scotiabank Arena.

Mainly because of Colorado's team-wide skating ability and a stingy effort in the defensive end, the Maple Leafs were unable to generate any real meaningful offense — with Auston Matthews and a stellar performance from Morgan Rielly as the obvious exceptions. Toronto registered just 19 shots throughout the contest, the fewest it has recorded all season.

“I thought the mobility of their defence was a real problem for us tonight, in terms of getting through the neutral zone and getting on the attack,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game.

Through their four-game home stretch, the Maple Leafs are running the gauntlet of the NHL’s best transition offenses. They’re rarely outmatched in the skill department but as the adage goes, speed kills, and the Avalanche flushed out the imminent danger in this one.

The Leafs couldn't manufacture any offensive support for Ilya Samsonov on Wednesday night. (Getty)
The Leafs couldn't manufacture any offensive support for Ilya Samsonov on Wednesday night. (Getty) (NHLI via Getty Images)

“It’s just commitment and hard work and just paying attention to the details,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said post-game. “When we play with that type of commitment and dedication to the checking side of things, we’re pretty good at it. You look at our lineup and we had a little bit of a shaky start where we’re given up some good scoring chances in the first period and then we tightened it up after that and the game became much more balanced.

Rielly got the Maple Leafs on the board, before Mikko Rantanen — who was Colorado’s best player on Wednesday — banked a shot off Jake McCabe’s stick for the equalizer. Ilya Samsonov was excellent for the Maple Leafs, but shootouts are cruel, and he was bested by the Avalanche’s Alexandar Georgiev.

Here’s what you need to know from Wednesday’s Maple Leafs-Avalanche game:

Three stars

1. Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche

There was so much firepower on the ice and Rantanen shone brightest. He registered five shots, 11 individual chances, won 58 percent of his faceoffs and scored the game-tying goal. Rantanen constantly used his massive frame and outstanding speed to keep the Maple Leafs on their heels.

He also played over 25 minutes and was the anchor of his line with Nathan MacKinnon and Evan Rodrigues. Playing against quality competition, Rantanen constantly found a way to make an impact, earning first star honours.

2. Morgan Rielly, Maple Leafs

This was Rielly’s best performance in recent memory. He ringed a shot off the crossbar in the opening minute of the game, then opened the scoring shortly thereafter, taking his time to pick the corner after receiving a beautiful cross-ice feed from Mitch Marner. Rielly made smart decisions in his own end and he wasn’t burned by the Avalanche’s speed, suppressing two high-danger chances from Logan O’Connor.

Rielly has struggled for most of the year, but this type of game should inspire confidence.

“That’s what we need to see from Morgan. A guy who can jump into those holes and get the puck and be a threat offensively. He played hard and defended well, as well.” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game.

3. Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

Matthews was a constant offensive threat throughout the game, even if it didn’t always register on the scoresheet. He notched a game-high six shots, his phenomenal edge work set up a golden chance for Rielly in the opening minute of the game, and he was unlucky that two of his deflections couldn’t squeeze past Georgiev. Matthews also has faced Connor McDavid, Tage Thompson and now Nathan MacKinnon as his primary defensive assignment in consecutive games and showcased his all-around excellence against the world’s best players.

The reigning Hart Trophy winner had a golden chance to win it in overtime, but the pass from John Tavares jumped over his stick. It doesn’t overshadow what was another excellent performance from the Maple Leafs superstar.

Honourable mention: Makar, Avalanche (four shots, 30:54 ice time, seven individual chances created), Georgiev, Avalanche (18 saves, OT win, .84 goals saved above expected), Samsonov, Maple Leafs (28 saves, 1.74 goals saved above expected)

Off night: Michael Bunting, Maple Leafs

Not trying to single out Bunting, but he was one of four Maple Leafs forwards who didn’t generate a single shot, and the rest of that company are constant fixtures in the bottom-six. Bunting usually plays to the level of his competition, but he didn’t provide John Tavares or William Nylander with much puck support, and was the designated man to serve the team’s too-many-men penalty. It’s been an erratic few weeks from Bunting and it wouldn’t be surprising if he turned it around against the Hurricanes on Friday.

Play of the game

It’s not the sexiest play — MacKinnon had a few electrifying rushes that captured the entire arena’s attention — but it is the one that gave the Avalanche two points. Cool, calm and collected, exactly what you’d expect from a player this good in a skills competition.

Misplay of the game

Jake McCabe has been a stabilizing presence for his partners since joining the Maple Leafs, but misfortune happens to the best of us. Rantanen’s shot went off McCabe’s stick and right through Samsonov’s five-hole, it would’ve been a perfect deflection if he played for the Avalanche. A very frustrated McCabe slammed his stick against the glass in disbelief, and we can’t blame him.

Stat of the night

Colorado suffocated Toronto’s attack, aside from Matthews, Rielly, Marner and a couple others. Toronto may have to make some adjustments ahead of Friday’s game against the Hurricanes, a team that has made a habit out of grinding opponents to a crashing halt as the Avs did in this one.

Going viral

Morgan Rielly was mic’d up for the NHL on TNT broadcast. Good timing! You won’t want to miss Rielly’s reaction after scoring the game’s opening goal.

Quote of the night

“In such a tight game, we had a shot here or there that could have been the difference. In each (power play), we did have one really high quality look and didn't convert. That's what the game comes down to, and in the end, they win the skills competition.” - Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, on the margins that led to the Avalanche’s victory.