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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Jason Spezza picked up the 960th point of his National Hockey League career on Friday night moving into 100th place on the all-time scoring list. 

"I welcomed him to the 100 club," said a grinning Joe Thornton, who's No. 14 overall with 1,521 points. "It's very special ... it’s a huge accomplishment."

"A huge honour to be in that group," Spezza said, "but I'm still playing so I'm just going to keep going and will get a chance to look at all that stuff when we're done."

Based on how he looks this season, the 37-year-old is far from done. Spezza has produced eight goals and 12 assists despite averaging just 10 minutes and 38 seconds of ice time per game. 

"I happen to believe the fourth-line minutes and role he's been given helps his cause," noted coach Sheldon Keefe. "There's a natural sense to give him more, but I think he's in a good place and it helps our team when he can produce where he is."

Spezza is able to exploit mismatches against other third and fourth lines. It's allowed him to produce 15 points in five-on-five play this season, which is fourth on the team, ahead of John Tavares (13) and William Nylander (14) among others. 

"He goes under the radar a little bit," Keefe pointed out. "Teams let their guard down a little bit when he and his line are out there."

Spezza leads the Leafs in points per 60 minutes (3.0) just ahead of Mitch Marner (2.67).

"We kind of have the same attitude," Marner said. "The happy kids, constantly happy just coming to the rink and being with one another here in this locker room. He brings that every single day. Regardless of how many minutes he plays, he always does something on that ice that I think amazes our whole team."

On Friday night that something was a shootout goal, which helped clinch the win for the Leafs. Spezza showed tremendous patience and poise to beat reigning Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck.

"It wasn't what I originally planned," Spezza said. "As soon as I kind of got a touch on it, it rolled up on edge so at that point you just want to take your time. I was able to settle it by the time I got to Hellebuyck and then just tried to make a good move and out-wait him and lucky it went it."

"He just oozes skill," said linemate Alex Kerfoot. "He goes into those with a plan. He knows what he's doing. He's got a long reach, has lots of moves, can shoot, can fake, so we have a lot of confidence when he's in those situations."

Spezza's tenure in Toronto got off to a tough start when former head coach Mike Babcock made him a healthy scratch in the home opener for the 2019-20 season.

Spezza eventually got into the lineup, but never gained much traction with the former coach. In fact, Babcock only used him once in three shootouts and it came eight rounds into the skills competition after Tyson Barrie and Ilya Mikheyev had already gotten a chance. 

Spezza, meanwhile, has batted lead off in all four shootouts under Keefe.

Spezza may have lost a step since breaking into the league way back in 2002, but the former second overall pick has never lost the hands. 

"Talent, obviously, is the biggest thing and he continues to work at his game so that the talent stays sharp," said Keefe. 

The coach also lauded Spezza for improving defensively this season to the point where he's carved out a penalty-kill role as a face-off specialist.  

And, of course, Spezza continues to be a leader on a team looking to take the next step.   

"In the games when he doesn't play that much, he's vocal and his talking just makes it seem like he's there and always locked in," Marner said. "It's great having him on the bench and he's done some wonderful things for us this year. He's a big part of this team and he's been a big part of a lot of our wins."

"A real fun guy to be around," said Thornton. "I wish you guys could experience this group. It's a real fun group to be around and we're enjoying each other's company." 

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For the 10th straight game, the Leafs failed to score on the power play. This is the franchise’s longest drought since 1997. 

"We just want to give it some time to breathe here a little bit with settling into consistent units," Keefe said after watching the team go 0-for-3 on Friday night. "We've told the guys we're not changing it. We're not changing anything so get comfortable with who you’re playing with, get comfortable together and find a way through it."

The Leafs have failed to score on 26 chances over this 10 game dry spell. The team even got a full two minutes on the man advantage in overtime on Friday, but couldn't convert.  

How do they get back on track? 

"Usually starts from passing," said Thornton. "Crisp pass. Work downhill. Shots. More, more, more shots. The key, as well, is funneling as many pucks as you can to the net and ultimately be good [at the] net front. You know what, I'm really not too worried about it to be honest with you. Two power play lines that are two potent lines, they just have to be comfortable with each other, but no worries on my end on that." 

Here’s how the units looked on Friday: 

No. 1: Morgan Rielly, Auston Matthews, Marner, Tavares and Wayne Simmonds. 

No. 2: Jake Muzzin, Spezza, Thornton, Nylander and Zach Hyman. 

Early in the season, Toronto had two units rolling with Matthews and Marner anchoring one and Tavares and Nylander on the other. In the current alignment, Tavares is sticking in the bumper role with Matthews and Marner while Thornton has shifted to the other unit. 

"It just gets him more involved," Keefe explained. "John’s proven over his career that he’s a very productive player on the power play and we like his ability there. We like his ability on face-offs. I'm really hoping we can get those two units really firing and pushing each other and making it hard on the opposition." 

Tavares has scored five of his 10 goals this season on the power play. 

In Wednesday’s game against the Jets, Toronto loaded up with a stacked top unit featuring the core four forwards and Rielly, but Keefe felt the group actually took a step back. 

So, the focus is now on re-establishing a balanced approach. 

"It's not necessarily what it does to the power play, but it's a trickle-down effect just to the habits and energy of the entire team throughout the power play and coming out of the power play," Keefe said. "We just played a Winnipeg team that has got one unit that is extremely dangerous and gets a little more time than the second, but that second unit, you know, you have [Nikolaj] Ehlers and [Pierre-Luc] Dubois coming over the boards on the second group and that unit is extremely productive and doesn't give you any time off. You got to kill the full two minutes all the way through and it's a daunting task when you're trying to prepare for it."

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Jack Campbell missed practice on Saturday. Keefe termed it a "maintenance day" and said the goalie was feeling "good" following a 31-save win on Friday. 

The Leafs will start Michael Hutchinson on Sunday with Campbell scheduled to go on Monday. The team always planned to split the back-to-back set and this way Campbell, who has been hampered by a left leg issue this season, gets a bit more rest. 

"We have to be smart with how we manage his workload despite the fact we don't have Frederik [Andersen] available," said Keefe

Campbell is 8-0-0 on the season with a spectacular .951 save percentage, which is by far the best mark among goalies with at least eight appearances. And Keefe believes the 29-year-old can continue to thrive in a bigger role. Campbell has never started more than 25 games in a single season.

"We can only go off of what we've seen here and I would say the potential is great," the coach said. "You can see his confidence growing and you can see the team's confidence in him growing as well."

 Campbell has beaten the Flames twice this season, including on Jan. 24 in Calgary when he initially sustained the leg injury. 

Hutchinson will be looking to regain some momentum as the Leafs have dropped his last three starts. 

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Why does Kerfoot use a candy cane style tape job on his sticks? 

"I started in college, actually," he said. "I ordered some sticks that were supposed to be grip sticks and they ended up not being grip sticks and so during that time I tried tinkering with some things. Someone told me to try the candy cane so I tried it, liked it, had a few good games, got used to it and now I can't change away from it. I’ve tried a little bit and maybe I will try and get away from it in the future, but I’m just so used to feel of it now that I’ve stuck with it." 

Kerfoot logged 14 minutes on Friday, which was the most ice time he’s received in a game since March 15. The 26-year-old centre likes the chemistry being developed on his line with Thornton and Spezza. 

"For us, the key is just keeping things simple," the Harvard product said. "We don’t need to force anything through the neutral zone. When we’re able to get it in behind them and work them down low, Jumbo is so good behind the net, and Spezz is really good with the puck. When we're able to get it down there and use our skill and awareness away from the puck it makes it tough on teams. But, we can get ourselves in trouble when we try and force things."

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Defenceman Justin Holl missed Saturday’s practice.

"Just a maintenance day for him," said Keefe. "He's been sore the last little while so we just decided to give him the extra day, but he'll be fine."