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Gelling Leafs aim to end trip on a Rocky Mountain high

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Auston Matthews Mitch Marner - The Canadian Press

The Maple Leafs and Avalanche held media availabilities at Ball Arena on Saturday afternoon. 

The Leafs have won a season-high six straight games. The Avalanche have won six straight games at home. One of the streaks will end on Saturday night. 

"We're going to be put to the test here today," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. "They got elite players that make you pay when you make mistakes and they don't make many themselves." 

Especially here. Colorado leads the NHL in home wins. The Avalanche are 22-5-0 in the Mile High City.  

"I like our attack mentality at home," said head coach Jared Bednar. "We're more disruptive up the ice. We're challenging teams to make plays around us with our checking up ice. We seem to have more energy in our home building and special teams have been good here as well. You put the whole package together and it gives you a little edge when it comes to our home games." 

The Avalanche rallied from 3-0 to beat the Leafs 5-3 in Toronto on Jan. 13. But this is a different Leafs team right now. 

"I felt, on this trip in particular, that the group is really coming together closer than it's been at any point in this season," said Keefe. "That's maybe something that's been a little understated is how many changes and how many different people were brought in, and then you combine that with the number of players that we have that are in their first year in the league, so we expected to be a group that got better as it moves along. We're in a good place now but, as we know, the NHL is a very demanding and difficult place and just got to stay humble and keep working."


Toronto has won 10 of 12 games since Jan. 21. Only the New York Rangers have a better points percentage during this stretch. 

"I always feel like they don't get enough credit for the way they defend and how hard they defend and their chance suppression," Bednar said. "It's been good now for a couple years and yet they still get beat up over it at times, I think because they're a really good offensive team. There's a lot of weapons on that team, but they're committed to what they're doing on the defensive side of it. They've put the whole package together here, especially in the last 10 games, and they're winning every night, so it's going to be a tough challenge."

The Leafs are allowing just 2.42 goals per game (fourth overall) during this 12-game surge up the standings. 

"The guys have been committed to it," said Keefe. "Our pursuit and pressure on the puck have gotten to be way more consistent, the way we'd like it to be, and consistent throughout the lineup in all three zones, so that's really helped us." 


Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon leads the NHL in even-strength points (59) while Leafs centre Auston Matthews leads in even-strength goals (37). 

"Whenever you have two stars going at it, especially head-to-head, I think it's exciting to watch," said Bednar. "You know there'll be ebbs and flows to the game within that matchup and with the teams, but you're watching two of the world's best play, it makes it a real interesting hockey game."

MacKinnon scored the game-winning goal late in the third period against Toronto in January. 

Matthews is as hot as ever with 10 goals in five games. He leads the league with 52 goals. No one else is even at 40 entering Saturday's slate of games. 

"Whenever he gets in the offensive zone, if you give him shot he's liable to score on it," Bednar said. "Big, strong, hard on pucks, likes to bring pucks to the net himself, and he heads to the net whenever he doesn't have the puck. He's finding space."

MacKinnon, meanwhile, has hit the scoresheet in all 27 home games this season. What makes his season special? 

"Consistency," Bednar said. "I mean, you look at what he's done, especially the home point streak, and just an impact player every night. No different than what Auston's doing for them. It's pretty incredible when you play at a high level and you're able to do it every night, regardless of the circumstances, energy level, all that, you're still finding a way to help your team win and help produce offence, and still does a really nice job on the checking side of it. To me, the consistency level, he keeps raising the bar for our team." 

Wayne Gretzky is the only player in NHL history to have a longer season-opening home point streak (40 games, 1988-89). 


Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar has gone seven straight games without a point. It's the longest drought of his NHL career. 

"I don't see a lot of differences in his game," Bednar said. "It just looks like he's fighting the puck a little bit. He's still working hard. He's still creating a bunch of good chances. It just takes one to go in for him and I think he'll be back. It's not a lack of competitiveness or a lack work ethic for him so he'll get out of it." 

Makar did not get on the scoresheet against the Leafs on Jan. 13.


Joseph Woll stopped 36 of 37 shots to earn a win for the Toronto Marlies on Friday night in Laval. It was his first game since sustaining a high ankle sprain with the Leafs on Dec. 7.

"It felt great," Woll told Marlies play-by-play voice Todd Crocker. "It's been a couple months and I've been really itching to get back in a game and it was awesome. It was great to get the win. I did my best to help the Marlies and I thought the guys did great in front of me. They protected the paint all night."

The 25-year-old was assigned to the American Hockey League for a conditioning stint earlier in the week. 

"He looked great," Marlies coach John Gruden said in conversation with Crocker. "Very composed. You know, had to play in traffic. It's a good test for him ... after being out for a while, so it was good to see. The guys saw that and how hard he battles, and they have some history with him, so they went that extra mile too to make sure he got his win and the team got theirs as well."

The second period was particularly challenging as the Marlies took seven minor penalties and were down two men twice. Woll made 20 saves in the middle stanza. 

"There's certain penalties that we took that I thought were necessary," Gruden said. "They were getting pretty tight to our goaltender. I think they were targeting him a little bit. Our guys had each others backs. We kill those off all day long."

"I try my best to just focus on what's important for me and try not to get too involved in the emotions of the game," Woll said. "That's for our energy guys to take care of."

Woll leads the Leafs with a .916 save percentage in 15 games this season. 

"It sounds like he's had a really good week," said Keefe. 

The Leafs coach indicated general manager Brad Treliving will determine the next steps for Woll. 


Leafs prospect Easton Cowan extended his Ontario Hockey League point streak to 26 games on Saturday, which set a London Knights franchise record. 

London alumnus Mitch Marner has been keeping tabs on Cowan. 

"It's been amazing," Marner said last Saturday after Cowan matched his 22-game streak set back in 2015-16. "It's been fun to see the highlights. Still keep a pretty good eye on that team."

Cowan has racked up 77 points in 44 games while helping the Knights surge to the top of the OHL standings. 

"It's been cool to see him grow and really embrace that role and take on that role as a leader there," said Marner, who led the Knights to the 2016 Memorial Cup. 


Alexandar Georgiev starts for the Avalanche, who will also get Andrew Cogliano back after he missed Thursday's game due to illness. 

The Leafs will stick with the same lineup, Keefe confirmed. 


Projected Leafs lines for Saturday's game: 

Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Domi - Nylander
McMann - Tavares - Robertson
Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves

Brodie - Liljegren
Rielly - Lagesson
Benoit - McCabe