TORONTO – The Maple Leafs came from behind to win in each of their first three games this season.
They were not able to complete such a feat once more with the Avalanche and their youthful swagger in town on Tuesday night. Rushing hard to the crease of Jonathan Bernier in the opening minutes of the third and final frame, P.A. Parenteau tapped in the eventual game-winner, keeping Colorado perfect while dealing the Leafs their first loss of the season.
"We just got behind and we weren't able to bang that one in to tie it," Tyler Bozak said after the game, which saw his team outshot 33-28.
"We're 3-1," he continued of the Leafs record after four games. "We're not too upset. It's a good start to the season. I don't think many [in the media] would've called us having that record to start the year."
While they managed 11 goals in the opening three games, the Leafs lacked sustenance and punch in their offensive attack on this night, Joffrey Lupul the lone man in blue to beat Semyon Varlomov. Rarely did the previously unbeaten home side sustain pressure down low in the offensive zone, a consistent assault off the rush additionally inconsistent.
"We were held in our own zone from their aggressiveness," Randy Carlyle observed afterward. "We didn't seem to be able to handle it, specifically in the second period."
Phil Kessel managed the lone shot in the opening eight and a half minutes of that middle frame. The Leafs finished the period with just seven to 15 for the Avalanche. Guided by new head coach and Hall of Fame netminder Patrick Roy, Colorado has stormed out of the gate this season.
"They're a really good team," Bozak said of the Avalanche, who improved to 3-0-0. "They're a lot different than what they were last year.
"They're all buying in, they've got a ton of skill up front, [and] they're a hard team to play against."
The Leafs had perhaps their best opportunity to even the score midway through the final frame, with Cory Sarich – who scored the first Avalanche goal – called off for tripping. Though they maintained possession through much of the man advantage, they could not ultimately beat Varlamov, who owns a .967 save percentage in three starts this season.
Sturdy once more in his first home start of the season, Jonathan Bernier made 31 saves.
Due to injuries, family matters and the ongoing suspension to David Clarkson, the Leafs were short four regulars in their forward group on Tuesday night, essentially leaning on just two lines for offence.
Carlyle refused to point the finger in that direction though after the game though. "You're going to have to deal with adversity throughout the course of the season," he said. "To me they can be built-in excuses and we're not going there with this hockey club."
Fortunate, in some regard, to scratch together victories in each of their first three games this season, the Leafs couldn't overcome what adversity they faced on Tuesday night, and were thus dealt their first loss this season.
1. Lacking punch with regulars out
Clarkson sat out the fourth game of his 10-game suspension, Nik Kulemin (ankle) and Frazer McLaren (finger) remained out with injuries and Jay McClement was with his wife Tuesday for the birth of their first child, a baby boy.
The result was a group short on much depth offensively.
Beyond Nazem Kadri in fact, the remaining five forwards on the Leafs bottom two lines Tuesday had combined for exactly 21 career NHL goals. It was no surprise then that Carlyle would shorten his bench considerably in the final period with his team down a goal.
2. Sturdy once more
Bernier stopped all but two from the Avalanche, a second-period marker from Sarich the lone one of question. "He made a good shot, but that's definitely a save that I've gotta make," Bernier said afterward. "It's a routine save. That's a goal that I want to take back."
Sarich burst down from the right point, surprising Bernier with a shot, the puck sailing rapidly over his glove and just under the bar.
"There was a guy back-door so I was expecting more pass than a shot like this, but, like I said, that's a save I've got to make for my team and try to keep them as long as possible in the game."
Competing for the No. 1 position, he and James Reimer have rotated the first four games of the season, with the Predators up next on the docket Thursday night. Where Carlyle leans next will be curious. Bernier holds a 7-1-0 career mark against Nashville with a 1.88 goals against average and .932 save percentage.
"He's given us a chance to win every time he's been in there and been spectacular at some points," Lupul noted of Bernier, who has a .963 save percentage so far this season. "We can't ask anything more of him."
3. Speed adjustment
Paul Ranger is predictably requiring some time to shake off four years worth of rust. The 29-year-old defender left the Lightning in the fall of 2009, finally returning to the NHL this season with the Leafs. Of his re-adjustment to the league, Ranger said the greatest challenge was catching back up to the speed. "I think that's probably the biggest thing," he observed before Tuesday's game.
Spending last season in the AHL with the Marlies, Ranger explained that the challenge lied in the ability to read and anticipate plays at the high speeds of the game's top level. One such example of that recent adjustment saw him holding the puck on the offensive blue-line with intentions of firing it through to the net. "It's a split-second [decision] in real time," he said, "but to me it seems like I have a little bit more time to really get the puck through versus before when I'd get the puck I'd look up and there'd be a guy right in front of me already. So you just learn to move quicker."
In perhaps a fitting instance of his re-adjustment, Ranger was beaten to a puck in the neutral zone by Jamie McGinn early in the third period, McGinn storming wide and beyond Ranger before feeding Parenteau for the eventual game-winner.
4. Special Teams
One of the more crucial elements of the Leafs success in 2013, strong special teams will remain high on the agenda of Carlyle this season. "Our goal is to have our special teams try to be in the top 10 per cent of the league," he said. "That's what your goal is every year. You try to make sure you're amongst the elite in the league with both specialty teams because it definitely does improve your chances of having success if you're able to accomplish that. And it's not an easy feat. There's good teams, good players that play in those situations and good coaches that devise schemes so it's an ongoing battle."
The Leafs had terrific special teams a year ago, boasting the league's second-best penalty kill and 14th ranked power-play unit. While still early, both units have remained strong through the first four games this season though the power-play came up empty in two opportunities on Tuesday night.
5. Long-time fan makes debut
Trevor Smith was born in Ottawa and spent much of his childhood in Vancouver, but grew up a Leafs fan, even sporting a personalized Toronto sweater as a kid. He made his debut with the club against the Avalanche on Tuesday, totaling about five minutes on a fourth line with Jamie Devane and Troy Bodie. "It's awesome," he said of the opportunity to play for the Leafs before the game. "To put that jersey on for the first time in the regular season, it'll be a true honour."
27-67 or 40 per cent – Leafs on the draw against the Avalanche.
14 – Shot attempts for Phil Kessel.
31 – Shifts for Cody Franson, leading the team.
5 – Leafs with fewer than 10 minutes of ice-time.
20:03 – Ice-time for Jake Gardiner.
5 – Points for Joffrey Lupul through four games to lead the team.
34.5 – Average shot attempts for Toronto opponents so far this season.
13:00 – Ice-time for Nazem Kadri.
Special Teams Capsule
Quote of the Night
"To me they can be built-in excuses and we're not going there with this hockey club."
-Randy Carlyle on missing a number of regulars on Tuesday night.
The Leafs visit Seth Jones, Shea Weber and the Predators in Music City on Thursday night.