TORONTO — The stench of one of the worst losses in team history had not yet worn off for the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday morning.
"It was embarrassing," top line centre Nathan MacKinnon said of Saturday's 10-1 thumping to Montreal. "Hockey Night in Canada, losing 10-1, it was horrible. I think we all wanted to crawl into a hole (Saturday) night."
Those feelings were put aside Sunday night as the Avalanche stole a road win on the shoulders of their goaltender in Toronto.
Semyon Varlamov was spectacular against the Maple Leafs, stopping 51-of-52 shots in a 3-1 win. It was only the second victory in the last nine games (and second in the last three games) for Colorado, currently the worst team in the National Hockey League with just 23 points.
The club, which has failed to make the playoffs in five of the last six seasons, has yet to find much footing under new head coach Jared Bednar, who replaced Patrick Roy behind the bench late last summer.
Saturday's defeat in Montreal was certainly the low point.
MacKinnon, however, thought Bednar's methods paid off ahead of the tilt in Toronto, in particular the coach's decision not to show video of Saturday's destruction on Sunday morning. The vibe was quiet at Air Canada Centre, players still embarrassed at the events of a night earlier.
Colorado had never given up 10 goals in a game since moving from Quebec in the mid-90's.
"I don't think any of us have been through something like that," MacKinnon said of the loss in Montreal, which saw the Avs trailing 6-1 after the first period. "We knew that people were going to be watching this game and seeing how we were going to react."
They might have another poor result had it not been for Varlamov. Overall shot attempts, tellingly, were 99-52 in favour of Toronto.
Finishing a four-game road trip that started Tuesday in Nashville, the Avalanche didn't have much pep in the early going.
The Leafs landed 16 of the first 19 shots, shift after shift spent hogging the puck in the Colorado zone. The Leafs couldn't break through, however, largely due to the efforts of Varlamov. The Russian netminder, who gave up six goals in the loss to Montreal, was stellar in stopping all 21 first period shots, a season-high this year for the Leafs.
Even-strength shot attempts favoured Toronto 24-7.
It was the Avs who got on the board first with Mikko Rantanen's fourth goal this season. Leafs goaltender Antoine Bibeau had trouble with Jarome Iginla's initial one-time attempt on the Colorado power play, Matt Duchene grabbing the rebound in front before finding Rantanen with a backhand pass. The 20-year-old fired into a largely empty cage, Bibeau's left skate locking with teammate Matt Hunwick's right skate as he scrambled to get over.
Bibeau was making his first NHL start after a so-so start to the American Hockey League season. He finished with 26 saves.
Notable in the early going for Toronto was Mitch Marner's brief drop to the fourth line. Among the leading rookie scorers, the 19-year-old has cooled of late, totalling just three assists (no goals) in nine games before Sunday.
He was reunited with usual linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak in the second and added a late assist on Jake Gardiner's power-play goal.
"I think there's been a message going on for a bit," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of the move. "It doesn't go your way all the time, but you've got to work hard every single day."
After the Avalanche evened things up somewhat in the second (shots were 15-10 for Colorado), Varlamov was needed again in the third. Toronto had 21 shots in the frame, the 28-year-old turning aside 20 of them, including a hearty stop on Zach Hyman with the Leafs all-rookie line, also including William Nylander and Auston Matthews, pressing.
Varlamov fell just shy of a career-high for saves; he had 54 in a shutout over the Chicago Blackhawks in Jan. 2015.
"We needed a bounce back today," Varlamov said afterward. "It's always hard to forget the bad games, but we're all professional and we have to move on quick and then focus on the next day. Today we woke up this morning and we told ourselves, 'Today's a new day, today's a new opportunity for us to win the game' and that's what we did."
MacKinnon, who upped the Colorado lead to 2-0 near the midway point of the third (the second power-play goal for the Avs), hoped the victory and even the brutal loss a day earlier would help turn the season around.
"It could be a blessing," he said of the 10-1 defeat. "You never know. It could be a turning point in our season that we need to wake up."