Against the Avalanche, the Maple Leafs look to reconnect with the winning formula to end 2022

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DENVER — The Maple Leafs stuck to the basics during a short practice Friday.

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Coach Sheldon Keefe wouldn’t mind a repeat, in a sense, in the club’s final game of the 2022 calendar year on Saturday.

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When the Leafs take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche at the Ball Arena on New Year’s Eve, Toronto will be looking to end its mediocre hockey surge coming out of the Christmas break.

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The Leafs got away with it to start the three-game trip, beating the St. Louis Blues in overtime on Tuesday, but the Arizona Coyotes weren’t as accommodating in a 6-3 manipulation against the Leafs Thursday.

From the goalkeeper to the defensive corps to the club’s best players, the Leafs have been out of sync.

“We kind of slipped here,” Keefe said after the Leafs’ quick practice at Magness Arena on the University of Denver campus. « Over 82 games, the level and standard we were playing at, it’s hard to maintain that, but that’s the ultimate goal.

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“I focus on how when we’re going to our best, we’re really connected, shift and game to play. There’s a lot of positive play – win a shift, next group out, win a shift. We don’t have enough.

« We will definitely have to be better (Saturday) because we are playing against the champions. »

Neither Matt Murray nor Ilya Samsonov were brilliant in net for the Leafs this week, although Keefe admitted the defense body « didn’t have a good night » against Arizona.

The quartet of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, Captain John Tavares and William Nylander didn’t contribute much to the trip, each scoring a point.

The offensive execution has been called off, though the Leafs should find out again if they’re able to sustain the kind of pressure on every shift Keefe is looking for.

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The Avs have lost both games since Christmas, and could be buoyed by the possible appearance of Nathan MacKinnon on Saturday. One of the NHL’s most dominant power forwards, MacKinnon hasn’t played since Dec. 5 due to an upper-body injury.

It goes without saying that Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar can also be a handful.

Keefe will use the same group of forwards and defensemen that lost in Arizona, although he didn’t indicate who would get the start in net.

With a start at 5 p.m. local time, the Leafs won’t have a morning practice. If it had been the usual 7:00 p.m. puck drop, the Leafs likely would have taken Friday off and had a full practice Saturday morning.

More than anything else, practice Friday was all about hitting the puck and staying sharp.

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« We made mistakes that compounded and led to these opportunities for our opponent in the last two games, » Tavares said. « It needs to be cleaned up.

“There is the importance of doing what we have to do to close the game and make it difficult for the opponent. When they push and come to you, (that’s) how we handle that and how we respond, back to that kind of mindset and execution.

« (The last two games) leave a bitter taste in your mouth. »

The thing to keep in mind is that the first two games of the trip don’t represent the kind of team the Leafs have become. The loss at Arizona marked the first time this season that Toronto had been beaten in regulation while leading after two periods, and it was only the second time in 36 games that the Leafs allowed more than four goals.

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Yet the desire is to ring in the New Year with the joy that would come from turning it around and defeating the Avalanche.

The belief has not wavered.

« We alluded to the fact that the more we played defensively and the more connected we were, our defensive metrics all improved and our offensive metrics followed suit, » Keefe said. “It’s more about battles with the puck, positioning and decisions about whether you’re going to be over or under the puck. That kind of stuff is what we are successful at and have been very successful at. When you don’t, you leave the game to chance.

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