A Saturday night matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche is the kind of game you mark on your calendars for, as two of the best teams featuring some of the leagues best forwards and defensemen go head to head. It’s the kind of game many would label a Cup Final preview, even though most Leafs fans don’t know what the second round is at this point in their lives. To make things even more exciting, both teams are coming in on hot streaks, with the Leafs rocking a four game winning streak (albeit split halfway through by a three week break) and the Avs winning eight of their last nine, including three in a row since coming back from their holiday/COVID break. But, with the Leafs down a few players, it certainly makes the task of winning tonight’s game a more difficult one for the Leafs, so how exactly can they match up against a loaded Avs team and exploit them?
Tale of the Tape (via Mark Norman)
Toronto Maple Leafs
There’s not a whole lot I can tell you about the Avalanche’s first line that you don’t already know. The trio of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen have been one of the best lines in the league over the past few years, and there are very few units that can match up with them on a consistent basis. They have the protypical line setup, with your speedy creative playmaker in MacKinnon, goal scoring machine in Rantanen, and the more physical forechecker that steps it up defensively in Landeskog, with all three of them being able to burn you, and are well over a point per game so far this season. From a possession stand point, the line’s weakest link is actually MacKinnon, as he hasn’t quite been the play driver he usually is, and his defense has been pretty mediocre this season as well, but Landeskog and Rantanen make up for it as possession monsters and can shelter MacKinnon a bit so that he can be the skilled maniac that he is. Overall, the line has still had a lot of success this season, with a 59.54% CF% and 58.21% xGF% at even strength, and they’ll be a tough one to contain.
Andre Burakovsky, Nazem Kadri, and Logan O’Connor haven’t played together this season, but on paper, it has the makings of a strong second line. Kadri is having a resurgence of a season with 42 points in 27 games this season. It’s already the most points he’s had in a single season with the Avs, and he’s only 20 away from setting a new career high. Burakovsky is an excellent compliment to Kadri’s breakout year, as he’s almost a point per game and can drive offense just as well. While both of them can drive play well, they aren’t great defensively, so that’s what O’Connor brings to the table. With 13 points in 30 games he won’t hurt you offensively, and his defensive game is much better than the other two. O’Connor has been pretty flexible all year and been moved around a lot, so he should be the perfect complementary piece to the one flaw of this second line.
The third line of JT Compher, Alex Newhook, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel is another one of those line combos that we’ve seen in this series that haven’t played quite enough time together, creating some wonky results in their numbers, with just under 13 minutes of ice time and a 43.59% CF% and 58.82% xGF% at 5v5. Newhook is a highly touted first round pick from the 2019 draft in his first full season, and has shown a lot of promise so far with 11 points in 21 games and some strong defensive results, particularly a 55.68% xGF% at 5v5, good for fourth among Avs forwards. He’s in a bit tough tonight, as Compher has some of the worst possession results on the team and Aube-Kubel, while not bad, doesn’t move the needle much, but perhaps this ends up being a nice test of Newhook’s skills without having to put him in the top six when he isn’t ready. Regardless, this is probably the Avs most exploitable line in the top nine.
It’s bad enough for the Leafs that they’re up against a loaded Avs team, but to also be without Mitch Marner and Pierre Engvall, who have been a couple of key cogs to their lines this year, makes matchups even tougher tonight. The Leafs have three different line combinations in the top 20 in CF% this year, and four in the top 30 in xGF%, and only one of those does not include one of Engvall or Marner, so they’ll have to go back to the drawing board, experiment and see what sticks. Normally, I’d say go best on best with Auston Matthews and MacKinnon, put David Kämpf’s line up against Kadri’s, and then let John Tavares’ line run amok against the wildcard third line for the Avs, but we don’t really know how the Matthews line will work with Alex Kerfoot on there, how Ilya Mikheyev will look in a top six role, and how Kämpf’s line will not only do without Engvall and Ondřej Kaše, but with Nick Ritchie and Jason Spezza in more elevated roles. Hilariously, all three line combos have under a minute of playing time together, but have 100% CF% and xGF% together. Fun with small sample sizes! But yeah, I think the big thing to look out for at this point then is keeping Kämpf’s line away from the top six, considering his play without Engvall hasn’t always been great this season, otherwise it’s hard to really plan the matchups when we don’t quite know how the Leafs line co …
Author: Scott Maxwell / The Leafs Nation