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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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Jason Spezza will play game No. 1,200 of his National Hockey League career on Sunday. 

"They definitely mean something," the 38-year-old said of games-played milestones. "Every 100 is celebrated amongst players. It's a hard league to stay in for a long time so, obviously, I'm proud of playing that long. You just kind of keep moving forward, one foot in front of the other."

What's the trick to that longevity? 

"One foot in front of the other," Spezza repeated with his trademark laugh. "There is no trick. I enjoy what I'm doing and it's not work for me ... You have good days and bad days, but I don't think I’ve ever been sick of the process. I enjoy the challenge." 

Spezza believes self-awareness is important. 

"A big skill, if you want to play for a long time, is just being honest in assessing how you're playing," he said. "If you wait until the coach tells you you're not playing good, a lot of times it's too late ... I've prided myself on evaluating my own game and when I'm going good and when I'm not and being able to stop the bad momentum and continue to build positive momentum. Individually, that's a skill you develop over time."

He's also altered his value system. Spezza, the second overall pick in 2001, is no longer measuring his game by goals and assists. He's a fourth-line player and has embraced that. 

"It's an adapt or die league and if you're not adapting then you're out," he noted. "I'm on a winning team. I'm finding a way to contribute in positive ways. We're getting shifts to the end of games and holding leads and drawing penalties and getting face-offs in the other team's zone to have the [Auston Matthews] line and the [John Tavares] line come out. Our second power play [unit] has been well organized and has given good momentum to us. Those are the ways I evaluate my game."

It's noteworthy that Spezza, the oldest player on the team, has suited up in every game so far, including four back-to-back sets. Sheldon Keefe considered resting Spezza in one of the games, but the team likes what he's providing right now. 

"His versatility is important and also his leadership and his voice bring value," the coach said. "He's a guy who loves his rhythm and loves to play."

Spezza takes the ice for every optional skate and he's usually the last non-scratch out there. The Toronto native is always doing something extra whether it be hammering one-timers from the corner or working on playing bounces off the boards. And he's always rotating between two or three sticks searching for the right feel. 

"You'd think it was Game No. 1 for him tomorrow by how excited he is every, single day," gushed goalie Jack Campbell. "He really is just enjoying every day. Sometimes you forget how much fun it is. It's a dream to play in the NHL and for Spezz to be at game 1,200 and having the same mindset is something we can all learn from."

Spezza is also a cautionary tale for Toronto's stars. Despite racking up 355 goals and 977 points over 19 seasons, Spezza has never lifted the Stanley Cup. 

"He's spoken at times about it," Keefe revealed. "There were times when he was a younger guy in Ottawa and they had some really good teams and he thought, 'We're going to win,' or 'We're going to be good forever,' but it's hard and you have to take advantage of every opportunity and day that you have."

Perhaps it's fitting, in a way, that Spezza reaches this milestone moment in Anaheim, which is the site of his most crushing loss. Back in 2007, Spezza watched the Ducks celebrate a Stanley Cup at the Honda Center after beating his Senators. 

"It's a little bit of a house of horrors for me," he said with a smile. "Not going to say it's my favourite arena to come into so I'll try and come in tomorrow and get a win and get out of here." 

Spezza is encouraged by how much his team is winning of late. He believes this Leafs group can be special. 

"We know we've had our challenges," he said. "We know we've had our failures, but we're not going to have them be the weight of the world on us. We're trying to move forward and trying to be better every day."

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The Leafs are the hottest team in hockey, but they haven't enjoyed a full day off in more than a week. Rather than reward the players with time off in California, Keefe has opted to hold practices on the days between games in order to maintain a businesslike approach. 

"We're at work," said gritty winger Wayne Simmonds, who snapped a 17-game goal drought in Friday's win. "We didn't come out here for vacation. We're here to play hockey. We don't expect to get days off and enjoy the sun and all that type of stuff. No, that's not what we're here for."

"The most enjoyable thing you can do is win," noted alternate captain Morgan Rielly. "Days off are fine if you want to do your own thing but to win games and have that feeling in the room afterwards, that's plenty more enjoyable than anything else you're going to do with your spare time."

The Leafs have 11 wins in November, the most ever in a calendar month in franchise history, but no one seems all that satisfied. 

"Maybe we've learned from past years," said William Nylander, "where we've played a couple of really good games and then we just relax and take our foot off the gas."

"Things are going good, but there's always that feeling in the back of your mind," said Tavares. "We got a long ways to go here. We can't get comfortable or feel like things are all in a good place."

Keefe and the players weren't exactly pleased with the overall effort at five-on-five in San Jose, especially in the third period when they failed to lock things down. 

On Saturday, Keefe ran a brisk 22-minute practice.

"Just the amount of skill that we have on this team, it's almost harder to practice than it is playing a game sometimes," Simmonds said. "So, I think that's a good thing ...We're one of the hardest-practising teams that I've been on in my career."

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After sitting out Thursday's practice and not playing in Friday's game, Campbell is ready to get back in net on Sunday against the Ducks. 

"You get that little bit of bounce back in your step," said the 29-year-old. "Not to say I was super tired yet in this year, I think it's just more for later on. It feels good getting a little rest." 

Campbell learned a lot about how to conserve energy last season. 

"The biggest thing is managing practice habits," he said. "I've always had that back-up mindset where every practice, every puck, you're battling as hard as you can, which is really important. Even still, to this day, I do that, but you have to pick and choose when to do that and how often to do that and it's not just an automatic. It helps the wear and tear and making sure you have the competitiveness for the game. That's the biggest thing I've learned."  

Early in his days with the Leafs, Campbell used to stay out late after practices playing different fun games with the guys. On Saturday, he left the ice soon after Keefe whistled the session over while Petr Mrazek, who's working his way back from a groin injury, enjoyed a fun game with the leading scorers on the team. 

"That's always been so much fun," Campbell acknowledged. "I used to be in there every day after practice, especially in L.A. Those games are so much fun. There's a time and place when I'll definitely join them, but big game tomorrow and I'll get ready for that."

Campbell has played in 17 of Toronto's 22 games this season.

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Ex-Duck Ondrej Kase has been ruled out of his homecoming game. The winger is dealing with an upper-body injury.

The absence of Kase has opened the door for Kyle Clifford to make his season debut with the Leafs on Sunday. He skated on a line with Spezza and Pierre Engvall at practice. 

"He's a good presence on the bench and the dressing room just to keep guys even keel," observed Keefe. "He's not the most loud or vocal guy, but he's very good at talking to players, you know, the guy next to him and the guy in the dressing room and those kind of things. He's a calming influence that way. I like that about him. He's just a pro. I mean, all our guys here are pros, but he's a pro's pro, I guess, if you will."

Clifford was acquired by the Leafs last week from St. Louis and was assigned to the American Hockey League where he played two games. He was recalled for this road trip and has taken part in three practices. 

"In the limited time we've seen him, he's brought what I expect, which is energy and competitiveness, work ethic, all those kind of things," Keefe said. "So, it's a real good chance to get him in the lineup here at the end of a long trip."

Kirill Semyonov, who replaced Kase in the lineup on Friday, will be a healthy scratch on Sunday. 

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For the first time this season, Matthews has scored in consecutive games. Best known for a lethal wrist shot, the 24-year-old centre is going to the dirty areas of the ice in an effort to jumpstart his five-on-five scoring.  

"You see some of the goals Auston's scored of late, being in the right spots, fighting for positioning and scoring in and around the net, those are the types of goals that are hard to earn," said Keefe. "They're available if you can work like that especially for a guy like Auston who is so big and strong and fast that he's a lot to handle when he gets inside that slot area and you're trying to defend him off the puck."

Entering Saturday's games, Matthews led the league in rebound scoring chances and was second in rebound goals, per Sportlogiq. 

"There hasn't been an abundance of chances available on the rush for our team," Keefe noted. "Teams have been doing a good job defending us in that regard. Anaheim will do that. One of the things I've been happy with through this trip is how our team's adapted to that and found different ways to score." 

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Nylander fired a season high eight shots on net in Friday's win. He had only recorded eight shots on net in his previous five games combined. 

"I was slipping in my shots," he said. "I wasn't really putting stuff to the net."

Nylander's first shot of the night was a slick breakaway move, which opened the scoring. It snapped a seven game goal drought for the 25-year-old Swede. 

"Nice for myself," he acknowledged. "I mean, I wanted to score a goal. The past couple games I haven't really scored."  

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Lines at Saturday's practice: 

F

Bunting - Matthews - Marner 
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander 
Ritchie - Kampf - Simmonds 
Clifford - Spezza - Engvall

D

Rielly - Brodie 
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermott 
Semyonov - Liljegren 

G

Campbell 
Mrazek 
Woll