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British Columbia

Against Avalanche, Maple Leafs look to reconnect with winning formula to close out 2022

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

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In a way, manager Sheldon Keefe wouldn’t mind a replay in the club’s last game of calendar year 2022 on Saturday.

When the Leafs meet defending Stanley Cup champions Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena on New Year’s Eve, Toronto will look to end its mediocre post-Christmas hockey push.

The Leafs came through to start the three-game journey, beating the St. Louis Blues in overtime on Tuesday, but the Arizona Coyotes weren’t as accommodating in a 6-3 handling against the Leafs on Thursday.

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

“We slipped a bit here,” Keefe said after the Leafs’ quick practice at Magness Arena on the University of Denver campus. “After 82+ games, the level and standard we’ve played to, it’s hard to maintain that, but that’s the ultimate goal.

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“My focus is on how, when we’re doing our best, layer by layer and game by game, we’re truly connected. There is a lot of positive play – win a shift, the next group comes out, win a shift. We don’t have enough of that yet.

“We certainly have to be better (Saturday) because we’re playing against the champions.”

Neither Matt Murray nor Ilya Samsonov were brilliant at the Leafs’ net this week, although Keefe conceded that the Defense Corps “didn’t have a great night” against Arizona.

The foursome of Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, captain John Tavares and William Nylander didn’t add much to the trip with one point each.

Execution on offense was off, although the Leafs should rediscover it if they’re able to take the pressure on each shift that Keefe is aiming for.

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The Avs have lost their two games since Christmas and could get a boost from the possible participation of Nathan MacKinnon on Saturday. MacKinnon, one of the NHL’s most dominant power forwards, has not 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 field the same group of forwards and defenders that lost in Arizona, though he didn’t specify who will start in goal.

With a 5 p.m. local time start, the Leafs don’t have a morning skate. Had it been the usual 7 p.m. puck drop, the Leafs probably would have taken Friday off and had a full skate on Saturday morning.

Practice on Friday was all about getting some touches with the puck and staying sharp.

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“We made some mistakes that put our opponent on those opportunities and led to those opportunities in the last couple of games,” Tavares said. “It needs to be cleaned up.

“It’s important to do what we have to do to finish the game and make it difficult for the opponent. If they make a push and come at you, (thus) we deal with it and how we react, you return to that type of thinking and execution.

“(The last two games) leave a bitter taste in the mouth.”

What’s worth keeping in mind is that the first two games on the journey don’t represent what kind of team the Leafs have become. The Arizona loss marked the first time this season Toronto had been beaten from a two-thirds lead, and it was only the second time in 36 games the Leafs had conceded more than four goals.

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Still, the wish is to ring in the new year with the cheer that would come from flipping it and defeating the avalanche.

Faith has not wavered.

“We alluded to the fact that the better we’ve played defensively and the more connected we’ve been, our defensive metrics have all improved and our offensive metrics have followed suit,” Keefe said. “It’s more about puck fights and positioning and decisions about whether you’re over or under the puck. Those kinds of things are what we do right and have done a lot of things right. If you don’t, you’re leaving the game to chance.”

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