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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who practised at Ford Performance Centre on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.


The first game back from the West Coast can be a tricky one so Sheldon Keefe has come up with an interesting plan to try and keep his group in a groove. 

"My approach was that, essentially, today and tomorrow's game are an extension of the road trip," the coach said. "We haven't necessarily settled at home yet. I've already spent as much time in this building as I have at home since coming back."

The team flew back from California on Monday after wrapping up a 4-0-0 road trip. Keefe didn't make it through his front door until 6:30 p.m. A few hours later, he was back on the ice at practice. 

"We knew we couldn't push the guys too hard today," Keefe said following a 35-minute session. "I wanted the intensity to be high within that short time frame and I thought it was. I liked the pace and energy that we had. Once the whistle blew, I think that's the fastest I've ever seen the ice clear so that's a pretty good indication of where our guys are at."

The players haven't enjoyed a full day off since Nov. 19. There is a day off scheduled on Thursday. So, Wednesday's game against the Colorado Avalanche is a real mental test. 

"As much as it's a boost to be back home and playing in front of our fans tomorrow, we still haven't really recovered from the road trip," Keefe stressed. "We have to still be treating it like you're on the road where you got to take care of yourself, you got to make sure you're getting good sleep and staying focused on how we've played and what we've done to succeed on the road." 

It would be easy to relax and let the foot off the gas considering the 14-2-0 run the team is on. 

"Our mindset has to stay with where it was," Keefe said. "The fact we are still feeling a little weary from the road, that will help us stay in that mindset. That's what I was trying to reinforce today."

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Toronto's incredible run has been fuelled not by a scoring surge, but by stingy defensive play. Since Oct. 26, Toronto leads the NHL in goals against per game (1.63). 

"Everyone's buying in and that's what it starts with," said forward Alex Kerfoot. "It really starts with a decision amongst the group that everyone really has to buy into it and everyone has to be on the same page. When, on an individual level, you're all committing to defence it really helps the team game as well and structurally we've been great."

"Everybody's doing what the game plan is and also some more," said goalie Jack Campbell, who leads the league in save percentage (.946).

The Avalanche lead the league in goals per game (four) this season. Colorado has won seven of eight games and Nathan MacKinnon is expected to return to the lineup on Wednesday. 

"We've been really consistent over the last little while with the way we're defending and just the mindset and the attitude," captain John Tavares said. "No question, we're probably going to have our toughest test with that tomorrow."

Despite just wrapping up the most successful month, by wins (12), in franchise history, no one seems too satisfied. On Tuesday, Tavares was quick to point out where his team can be better. 

"The last couple of games we probably haven't sustained momentum maybe as much as we would like," Toronto's leading scorer (22 points) said. "We can be a little better through the neutral zone. When that's going really well that's when we can really play with the puck and play to our strengths with the depth we have and the skill-sets that we got."

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It seems like a long time since the Leafs lost four straight (0-3-1) in October. The team has looked much different on and off the ice since then. 

Toronto adopted a relaxed dress code at the start of the season, but when the losses piled up the team went back to the traditional suits approach. 

"Management just felt that they wanted to go back," Tavares revealed. "There was a mutual understanding of the expectations on a daily basis with giving us more of the freedom and [they] felt the standards we needed to be at weren't quite at the level."

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Petr Mrazek was a full participant at practice on Tuesday.

"Happy to be back, I can tell you that," the 29-year-old said. "It's been a tough start for me. I try to be positive and work hard to get back." 

Mrazek suffered a groin injury in his first start of the season on Oct. 14 in Ottawa. He hurt the groin again in his first game back on Oct. 30. 

"I started feeling it a little bit during the game but it wasn't as bad as in Ottawa so I finished the game," Mrazek recalled. "A few days after, we were looking at it and it wasn't getting any better."

Mrazek visited with a groin specialist, who advised him to shut things down. Tuesday marked his first full practice since then. 

Keefe says the plan is for Mrazek to ramp up his workload in the coming days before joining the Marlies for an American Hockey League conditioning stint this weekend. 

"It's frustrating," Mrazek said of his start in Toronto. "Hopefully it's going to have a great end. It's early in the season. The season's long." 

Mrazek did travel with the team to California last week, which allowed him to continue to bond with his new teammates, including Kyle Clifford. The pair will forever be connected by the David Ayres game. On that fateful night – Feb. 22, 2020 – Hurricanes starter James Reimer got hurt and was replaced by Mrazek. Mrazek then got injured when he and Clifford collided while both going for a loose puck. 

"We did talk about that," Mrazek said with a smile. "We sit next to each other on the plane and [while] playing poker. All good. We talked about it a little bit. He said he was going to for a breakaway. He was making a joke about that. He's a great guy and those things, when you play against a team, happen."

After Mrazek departed, emergency back-up goalie Ayres, a 42-year-old, took centre stage and recorded the win. 

"You don't even think in that moment that you don't have any back-up on the bench," Mrazek recalled. "You just go for the puck if you have to and that's what happened."

Would he do the same thing again? 

"Yeah, I would go for the puck again," Mrazek said with a grin. 

But the Czech native is well aware that the Ayres game is still a sore subject in this city. 

What does he think about what happened after he left the game? 

"I don't think we have to talk about that," he said. 

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Keefe hasn't hesitated to tweak a winning lineup and he will make another change on Wednesday. Joey Anderson, who has five goals and two assists in 13 AHL games, will make his season debut with the Leafs.

"Joey is a guy who works extremely hard," Keefe said. "He is a versatile player. He has good defensive instincts and a great work ethic. We think he can help on the penalty kill. We liked his camp. We liked his start to the Marlies season. He has been up here a few times with us now and he has done well in our practices." 

Clifford, who made his season debut with Toronto on Sunday, will be scratched. 

Anderson played just one game with the Leafs last season (Jan. 26 in Calgary). It was a trying year for the 23-year-old from Minnesota. 

"Last year was very hockey-centric," he said. "I wasn't able to get away from the game ... Being in Canada, my family wasn't able to come and I'm really close with them. Normally they come and see me once or twice a month so that was tough. When I got here last year, I didn't know many players in the organization and I was living alone and it was tough for me to be kind of be sitting alone all day."

Anderson likes to blow off steam by golfing, bowling and, of course, visiting with family and friends.

"This year's nice," he said. "My family's been out here a ton. It's just been great to interact with people away from the rink again. Even being around the team and guys away from the rink has been, really, a blessing for me this year."

Anderson accompanied the Leafs to California at the start of the recent road trip, but was recalled to Marlies after just one day out West. That brief cross-continent trip allowed him to catch up with younger brother Mikey Anderson, who is a defenceman with the Los Angeles Kings. The pair had dinner and watched a couple of movies. 

"It was a really nice gesture," Anderson said. "Obviously, they know how tough last year was on everybody so they're trying to help everybody out and make sure guys are feeling good. As much as it helped me, I know it definitely was nice for him to see me as well. L.A. is a long way from home for us. Even though we can fly there, it's not the cheapest thing for our family to get out and see him and any time we can see each other it's a really special thing." 

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Auston Matthews scored in all three games during the California swing, but didn't rely on his patented wrist shot to start his first goal streak of the season. Instead, he converted on rebounds and deflections. 

"When it's not going in from the outside you just got to get to the net and I was fortunate to get a couple bounces, a couple good tips and able to cash in," Matthews said. "I can score from different areas so just try to get to the net. Obviously, that's where goals are scored a huge percentage of the time."

Matthews arrived in California having gone 10 games without a goal in five-on-five play, which was his longest drought since his rookie season. All three of his goals on the trip came at even strength. 

"He's a complete goal scorer," said Kerfoot. "You know that. We all know that. He can score in just about any way you can put the puck in the net. He's got great hands. He gets his stick on a lot of pucks. He battles hard to get to those areas and he's able to really dig pucks out of the front of the net, which is key because there's always loose pucks around there and he always seems to get the puck on his stick in those situations. And then he's got great hands in front of the net. He can make people look silly. There's not many guys who can beat goalies from the outside and he's one of them so there's not much more you can ask for out of a goal scorer."

After undergoing surgery on his left wrist in the summer and missing the first three games of the regular season, Matthews needed some time to get his touch and feel back. Now, after his three-goal outburst in California, Matthews is up to 10 on the season, which is tied for the team lead with Tavares. 

"He just does it all," said Campbell. "Some of it's just the touch. Some of it's the hand-eye coordination. You see him knocking down pucks all over the ice and creating chances, taking pucks away, knocking them down or stick lifting guys. It's really just fun to watch him and that line's buzzing for us." 

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That line currently includes Michael Bunting. Since being promoted to left wing on the Matthews line, he has produced two goals and four assists in four games. 

"It's been great," the 26-year-old rookie said. "I hang out with both those guys pretty often off the ice so to play with them on the ice, it's a lot of fun. I just try and get open, try to retrieve pucks and let them play with their magic. Right now, we're rolling and hopefully we can keep that going."

Mitch Marner set up Bunting for a goal on a two-on-one rush on Sunday. 

"Mitch has great vision," Bunting said. "Probably one of the best visions in the NHL so I know whenever it's on his stick, I just have to find those soft spots and he'll find me. He made a helluva pass for my goal."

Bunting only had two even-strength assists during a nine-game run on the top line earlier this season. He looks a lot more comfortable now.  

"He is more comfortable," Keefe agreed. "While on the surface playing with players of that calibre is somewhat easier, there are some challenges that come with it that are more difficult than playing lower in the lineup. Some of that is mental — in fact, a lot of it is probably mental. That takes some time, especially for a player that is still really trying to establish himself in the league and trying to get comfortable in the league. That is part of why we reset him a little bit going back down with the expectation that he would move back up. He has gotten his opportunity here and I think he has done a good job."

Bunting says he's now more confident making plays with the puck alongside Matthews and Marner. He's never been shy on the bench, though. Bunting constantly runs his mouth during games whether talking to teammates or opposing players. 

"Oh, it's great," said Matthews. "I played with Matthew Tkachuk [at the U.S. National Development Program] so I'm kind of used to it. I like that. We're just always communicating, making it clear what we're seeing out there, what we want from each other and always trying to get a better feel for what we're looking for."

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Lines at Leafs practice on Tuesday: 

 

Bunting - Matthews - Marner 

Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander 

Engvall - Kampf - Anderson 

Ritchie - Spezza - Simmonds 

 

Rielly - Brodie 

Muzzin - Holl 

Sandin - Dermott 

Clifford - Liljegren 

 

Campbell 

Mrazek