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Varlamov stonewalls Maple Leafs as Colorado Avalanche leave Toronto with 3-1 win

Rene Bourque #17 of the Colorado Avalanche skates with the puck away from Morgan Rielly #44 of against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on December 11, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Just when you think the Toronto Maple Leafs have finally turned a corner toward semi-respectability, up pops a baffling performance like Sunday night's outing against the Colorado Avalanche.

Returning to the cozy confines at the Air Canada Centre after a solid win Saturday night in Boston against the Bruins, one would have expected a fired up Toronto outfit to show up, ready to build on the momentum from that big road win.

And when the opponent was an Avalanche outfit who were shellacked 24 hours earlier in Montreal, you would have thought Toronto's task would be that much easier.

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Instead, it was the Avalanche who were able to crush Toronto's spirits on a snowy night in the big city, skating to a 3-1 win in a low-key, tight-checking affair.

If you like your hockey with a heavy dose of defensive play with little in the way of gold standard scoring chances, this was your baby.

The game marked the National Hockey League debut of Antoine Bibeau in the net for the Maple Leafs with regular goaltender Frederik Andersen getting that night off.

If Bibeau was tense, it didn't show and he was the least of Toronto's problems in this plodding affair.

"I sure hope he was nervous tonight, his first NHL game," said Toronto's Jake Gardner, the only Leaf to beat Colorado goaltender Semyon Varlamov. "But he didn't look like it. Pretty calm kid."

The Avalanche took a 1-0 lead into the third period on the strength of a power play goal by Mikko Rantanen all the way back in the late stages of the opening frame.

The Avalanche would increase their total to 2-0 with another power play marker, the one by Nathan MacKinnon at the 7:22 mark.

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MacKinnon neatly stepped around Toronto defender Morgan Rielly at the Leaf blueline and then skated in to beat Bibeau with a low shot to the stick side.

The Leafs finally broke through late in the game when Gardiner one-timed a blast past Varlamov at the 17:24 mark while Toronto was enjoying a two-man advantage and had their goaltender pulled.

Blake Comeau then iced it for Colorado, sliding a long shot into the unmammed net with 1:11 left to play.

Toronto outshot Colorado 52-19 on the game, but the majority of the shots were from far out as the Avalanche did a good job of limiting any second chances.

"They get a good road win, they rode their goaltender and got it done," said Toronto coach Mike Babcock. "We had lots of opportunities to score and didn't. The power play had good looks, but we got to score on the power play, you just can't get good looks."

The Leafs started the day eight points back of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and the next week or so might provide a good opportunity for the club to make some post-season hay.

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Sunday's contest marked the first of a five-game home stand for the Buds, who next will entertain the San Jose Sharks at the ACC on Tuesday.

For the Leafs, coming off an impressive 4-1 win in Boston on Saturday, the back-to-back was their sixth of 18 scheduled for this season. Toronto came into the Colorado game with a record of 0-4-1 in the back half of back to backs this season.

It was also the second game in as many nights for the Avalanche, who were humiliated just 24 hours earlier, dropping a 10-1 loss in Montreal to the Canadiens.

Maybe Patrick Roy had the right idea when he abruptly resigned as the Avalanche coach in August.

Babcock was certain that Colorado would be primed to make amends against the Leafs.

"What would you want from us if we got tuned last night," Babcock said earlier on Sunday. "You'd expect us to come here and get our nose to the grindstone and bet back to it. They're going to be no different here, they've got proud guys."

As for Bibeau his first NHL start, Babcock said he expected the 22-year-old to be a tad nervous.

Bibeau was whiling away his time with the Marlies in the American Hockey League when he got called up after Jhonas Enroth was waived and then demoted to the minors.

"It was a really special game, obviously," Bibeau said. "Unfortunately we couldn't get the win but it was a really special moment. My family's here right now and I got a lot of support from friends and family so it's really special."

The Leafs carried the play to Colorado in the opening period, outshooting their opponents 21-8, a season high for shots in one period for Toronto this season.

But it was the Avalanche who skated away with a 1-0 lead.

Rantanen scored the goal, on the power play with just over a minute left in the period, knocking home the puck into the open net with Bibeau caught out of position making an earlier save.

Tyler Bozak was off for tripping at the time – a lazy penalty that occurred in the Colorado defensive zone.

The defensive noose tightened in the goalless second period where scoring chances were kept to the bare minimum.

In perhaps an attempt to light a fire under his team, Matt Martin of the Leafs engaged Nikita Zadorov in a fight late in the period, but to no avail.

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