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In pursuit of Cup dreams, Maple Leafs and Avalanche progress along parallel arcs

| January 10, 2022, 12:05 PM

January 10, 2022, 12:05 PM

It might be a stretch to say the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche are worthy of dropping the Spider-Man meme, where different versions of your friendly neighbourhood superhero stand around pointing at each other as if to say, “Hey, aren’t you me?”

For people who’ve managed to live their life without both comic books and Twitter, here’s a visual cue:

(And don’t ask me what kind of superhero timeline shenanigans leads to three Spider-Mans being in the same spot at the same time; if it’s not Star Wars or a bounty hunter-focused Star Wars spinoff, I’m basically as lost as a guy trying to stick-check Cale Makar.)

What I do know is, there’s definite overlap in terms of where the Leafs and Avs are in their franchise arcs. Saturday’s 5-4 comeback win by Colorado over Toronto — the home side trailed 3-0 and 4-1 before using two third-period goals to pull even, setting the table for Devon Toews’s OT winner — made for fantastic viewing, but it certainly won’t make or break the seasons of teams with aspirations as lofty as those held by these squads. Make no mistake, these clubs will be judged entirely on what they can or can’t do in the playoffs.

In the case of the Leafs, that’s because they haven’t pushed through the first round in five tries beginning in 2017. Yes, Colorado has been able to crack the code in Round 1, but the Avalanche have bumped up against a second-round ceiling in each of the past three post-seasons. Bottom line: both organizations are still looking for a way to process heaps of raw talent into ring culture.

When a team is in a championship-or-bust stage, it’s too easy to overlook what they do in a regular season often characterized as nothing more than a dress rehearsal. With that in mind, let’s carve out some space to appreciate what Colorado has done over the past eight weeks.

Since Nov. 11, the Avalanche have a league-best, eye-popping .833 points percentage and they earned their most recent points by beating the club with the second-best mark in that timeframe, the .789 Maple Leafs. Over a 21-game span, Colorado is averaging an NHL-topping 5.0 goals-per-game (Toronto is No. 2 at 4.0) and its power play is operating at a staggering 31 per cent (only the Leafs are better at 35.2 percent). The top two players in the league in terms of points-per-game in this two-month stretch are Nazem Kadri (1.89) and Mikko Rantanen (1.67), while the top two D-men are Makar (1.26) and Toews (1.21).

cale makar is on pace for 46 goals lmfao

— Scott Wheeler (@scottcwheeler) January 9, 2022

The work of those blueliners in particular could not be missed during the win over Toronto. Toews earned his plaudits for depositing the overtime winner, but it’s safe to say the game never would have made it to extra-time without the other-level play we consistently see from Makar.

After giving his team a goal it desperately needed late in the second period to pull within two, Makar was down below the goal line, spurring the forecheck with his team trailing 4-3 in the third. It was his work scrapping for the puck along the end boards against Kyle Clifford and Jake Muzzin that created the turnover J.T. Compher was ultimately able to convert into the equalizing strike. Over-35 hockey fans likely see a Colorado defenceman wearing No. 8 in on the attack like that and think Makar would be bringing a tear to the eye of Sandis Ozolinsh, the lead-the-rush blue-liner who helped put the Avs over the top in 1996.

While Colorado isn’t as far removed from its championship days as the Leafs, it’s worth noting the team’s somewhat recent history might be bleaker than you realize. This franchise went more than a decade without winning a playoff series between 2008 and 2019, missing the post-season entirely in six of seven campaigns from 2010-11 to 2016-17.

The corner has obviously been turned now. And while there’s a sense none of it means a thing if the Sasquatch Squad coughs up another hairball in the spring, that shouldn’t detract from our ability to enjoy the show — as high-flying as Spider-man himself — being put on by Colorado right now.

Other Takeaways

• Here come the Boston Bruins? It’s not that the B’s are on some crazy hot streak just yet, but Saturday’s 5-2 win in the home of the two-time defending Cup champs is a good jumping off point to take a closer look at this club. After downing Tampa Bay, Boston has won four of its past five, has just three regulation-time L’s in its past dozen games and is averaging 37 shots on goal in its past half-dozen outings.

All this with the understanding that Tuukka Rask figures to return to the Boston crease somewhere in the not-too-distant future. The Bruins hold games in hand on every Atlantic Division team ahead of them, but are probably in tough to crack the top three. That said, they could wind up being a nightmare wild card draw for a Metro or Atlantic winner.

• On Saturday, the Dallas Stars won their fourth straight contest, snapping the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 10-game winning streak in the process with a 3-2 home W. Despite that, we’d have to characterize the past 48 hours as a tough weekend in Big D. First off, on the same day they downed the Pens, pending-UFA defenceman John Klingberg spoke bluntly about his frustration level over the fact there has not been meaningful negotiations between his camp and the Stars in some time. Then on Sunday, Dallas surrendered two last-minute goals to the St. Louis Blues to allow the visitors to skate away with a 2-1 victory. The Blues became just the 11th team in league history to win a game in regulation that it trailed heading into the final minute.

Facing a deficit in the final minute of regulation, the @StLouisBlues rallied for a victory the likes of which the NHL has rarely seen.#NHLStats: https://t.co/YRZzzIPqQP pic.twitter.com/IBk9wJo8h0

— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 9, 2022

The swings with the Stars have been positively wild this year: Their four-game winning streak was preceded by a five-game losing spin that came on the heels of a stretch where they won seven straight. It’s been all or nothing in Texas and since it still adds up to this team being out of the playoffs right now, it’s very interesting to consider what the next move with Klingberg could be.

• So the first goal Zach Fucale witnesses go into his net during an NHL game he started occurs on Saturday with him on the bench watching the Capitals botch a pre-power play six-on-five opportunity by putting the biscuit into their own goal while the ref has his hand up. Fucale is then 35 seconds away from posting his second whitewash in two career starts before Mats Zuccarello bags the Wild’s fourth game-tying, final-minute goal of the season to snap Fucale’s record shutout string to start an NHL career at 138:07. Who writes this stuff?

Zach Fucale has set the NHL record for the longest streak without allowing a goal to start their career, beating Matt Hackett’s (MIN) mark of 102:48 set in 2011.

— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) January 9, 2022

Weekend Warrior

The league’s top three rookies met on Sunday afternoon in Orange County, with the Ducks edging the Red Wings 4-3 in a shootout. Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras registered a goal and a helper, while Detroit freshman Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond each got on the scoresheet with an apple. Appropriately enough, in a game coloured by Calder hopefuls, goalie Lukas Dostal got the ‘W’ in his NHL debut.

Dostal @comtois20

All #FlyTogether | #AngelsNight22 pic.twitter.com/ZGd6hdnEVE

— Anaheim Ducks (@AnaheimDucks) January 10, 2022

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (22-8-3) The hockey world is slowly becoming a better place thanks to the work of Wayne Simmonds and the rest of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, who unveiled their #TapeOutHate campaign on the weekend.

2. Calgary Flames (17-10-6) The Flames were dropped 6-3 by the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday. That concluded a run in which the team went 0-3-0 against elite competition on the road in Florida, Tampa and Carolina, getting outscored 16-6 in the process.

3. Winnipeg Jets (16-12-5) Like the remaining Canadian clubs, the Jets were idle this weekend thanks to postponements. Their only scheduled game in the next eight days is Thursday in Detroit.

4. Vancouver Canucks (16-15-3) We should know more about Bruce Boudreau’s club by week’s end, as the Canucks visit Florida on Tuesday, followed by stops in Tampa and Carolina. Reality check or time to take this rejuvenated squad seriously?

5. Edmonton Oilers (18-14-23) Five days off and counting for the slumping Oilers, who won’t be back in action until hosting Ottawa on Saturday.

6. Ottawa Senators (9-18-2) As it stands, the Sens are slated to play just their second game of 2022 on Thursday in Calgary.

7. Montreal Canadiens (7-23-4) It sounds like the Canadiens could have a new GM in place by the end of month. The first order of business might be trading pending-UFA Ben Chiarot before something bad injury- or COVID-wise happens to the big defender, as it seemingly has to basically every other guy on this roster.

The Week Ahead

• Colorado will be trying to extend its home winning streak to 12 games on Monday and I’d say they’re plus-it’s-gonna-happen against the Seattle Kraken.

• Cue the video tribute: Seth Jones makes his return to Central Ohio when the Blackhawks visit Columbus on Tuesday.

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