The Colorado Avalanche have officially done what many considered this year to be unthinkable.
After putting up an abysmal 48-point effort last season, the Central Division club is on top of the world. They’re one of the league’s hottest teams, with a nine-game win streak that includes victories over the New York Rangers and Islanders, Minnesota Wild, and... oh yeah, the Leafs in their only other meeting of the season.
In comparison, the Leafs have been increasingly frustrated recently, dropping four of their last five games and earning some ire from both head coach Mike Babcock and starting goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Toronto will be without their best defenseman for a second straight game as Morgan Rielly nurses a shoulder injury.
The Avalanche are flying high, but their hosts are desperate - making for what could be a wild game on Monday evening.
Colin Wilson missed the last game with the flu and is expected to be a game-time decision tonight.
Injured players: All three of Tyson Barrie, Semyon Varlamov and Sven Andrighetto traveled with the team, but none are expected to play tonight.
(Update) Official lineup:
Nathan MacKinnon currently boasts the league’s longest active point streak, and he’s one of the hottest players in the league this year. One of just 13 players to already have 50 or more points, he’s getting dangerously close to Hart frontrunner Nikita Kucherov.
He’s not the only Avalanche player heating up, of course, with Matt Nieto really getting things rolling - and although he’s on the fourth line, always look for an unexpected tally by Nail Yakupov. He has eight goals and 13 points this year in 39 games - five more goals and four more points than last year with one fewer game so far. He’s inconsistent, but getting better, and clearly still a solid goal scorer when he’s able to work his magic.
For the Maple Leafs preview, we spoke with Acting The Fulemin (I’m not sure if that’s his real name) from our Maple Leafs sister site.
1. The Leafs have been struggling lately, is there any particular reason for the struggles or is it just a lull in the season that every team goes through?
The Leafs’ big weapon is offensive depth--they normally have three quality scoring lines. Lately, though the Leo Komarov-Nazem Kadri-Pat Marleau line has been ice cold (they did have a good night Saturday.) If the Kadri line, which is also our shutdown line, can’t score, we become a pretty ordinary offensive team. An ordinary offence with our questionable defence is not a recipe for success. So everyone wants to replace Komarov.
2. What has been the most surprising part of the Leafs season?
Jake Gardiner. He was the team’s best defenseman last year. This year he and Nikita Zaitsev (now injured) have struggled to be an effective second pair. I think a lot of us hoped for improvement this year from the team.But to get that, we needed two functional puck-moving defence pairs. Morgan Rielly has held up his end very well, but Gardiner taking a step back has been a real disappointment. Hopefully, he has a big second half.
3. What are the Leafs going to have to do to become a legitimate contender in the East?
Add a top pairing RHD. Easier said than done. But I think with continued growth from the Matthews-Nylander-Marner trio, the forwards will remain strong. Shoring up the right side--whether via trade, FA, or a growth spurt from Timothy Liljegren is key.
Bonus question: you need a high-end RD, what would you offer for Tyson Barrie?
Kapanen, Brown and a 2nd. Not sure that would be enough to get him but I just can’t see the Leafs going higher; I think they’d want someone more defensive -minded to play with Rielly, as good as Barrie is.
Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Leo Komarov
James Van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Connor Brown
Matt Martin - Frederik Gauthier - Mitch Marner
Jake Gardiner - Ron Hainsey
Travis Dermott - Connor Carrick
Andreas Borgman - Roman Polak
This season, Frederik Andersen will play in every single game but the second contest in back-to-backs, barring injuries or illness. So it’s no surprise that he’s starting tonight, getting his 41st appearance of the year in 49 games.
He’s been excellent since shaking off some early-season rust, boasting a .920 save percentage in all situations and posting quality starts about 63 percent of the time. He’s struggled a bit in his last few games, though, and showed some uncharacteristic frustration after the team’s last loss this past week.
On the Avalanche side of the ice, expect Jonathan Bernier - again. He’s been excellent in his interim starter role, and the team’s on one of the league’s best win streaks over the last handful of years. In comparison, backup Andrew Hammond has been mediocre at best in the minors, so giving him a start when the team is shooting for 10 in a row would be tempting fate.
Bernier will enter the game with a .919 save percentage in all situations and a 13-7-1 record on the year. He hasn’t dropped below a .913 in a single game since December 16th.
How to Watch
Tonight’s game will be on Altitude2 with puck drop at 5pm MST. For Avs fans north of the border, the game will be broadcast on Sportsnet Ontario.