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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The Red Wings (optional) and Maple Leafs (optional) skated at Little Caesars Arena ahead of Wednesday's game. 

John Tavares played 22 minutes and 31 seconds on Saturday in the thin air of Denver, the most ice time he's received in a game in his Leafs career. It's a sign of things to come. 

"It was a situational thing with [Nathan] MacKinnon," explained new head coach Sheldon Keefe. "We were trying to chase that matchup as best we can and [Nazem] Kadri was playing very well in that game too. Between Tavares and [Auston] Matthews, we were leaning on them a lot, but I do think that's a trend you'll see with those guys. We'll try to get them more involved in different things."

Matthews played 20:43 against the Avalanche, which is up from his season average of 19:47. Tavares is averaging 18:31 of ice time per game.

The Leafs barely hung on for the victory in Colorado after winning handily in Keefe's debut a couple nights earlier against the Coyotes. 

"It is very situational depending on what's happening in the game," Keefe said of ice time. "Both were playing a lot in the Arizona game as well and then we felt it we had it pretty well under control so we started to spread it out a little bit more."

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While Matthews has 16 goals in 25 games (53-goal pace), Tavares only has six goals in 18 games (27-goal pace over 82 games). 

Tavares has gone four games without a point, doubling his previous long drought as a Leaf. He fired just one shot on net on Saturday night. 

"Probably haven't been as consistent as I'd like," the captain said. "Some of it is I got to capitalize on some of my opportunities, but certainly [also] continue to find another level."

In his last media availability before being relieved of his coaching duties, Mike Babcock pointed out that Tavares was still dealing with the after effects of a broken right index finger. The injury, sustained on Oct. 16, sidelined Tavares for three weeks. 

"He probably can't hold [the stick] the way he wants to hold it," Babcock said. "That's going to come over time."

Tavares has three goals in 10 games since returning to the lineup. 

"It continues to get better so, you know, there's a little bit of an adjustment," he said, "but I have high expectations for myself and don't put too much focus on that ... if I'm out there, able to play, I expect that I can do the job that's necessary to be done."

The Tavares line has undergone a makeover under Keefe with rookie Ilya Mikheyev slotting in on the left side and Zach Hyman, a righty who played left wing during the Babcock era, shifting over to his strong side. 

"They've been really good," said Keefe. "Both guys, Mikheyev and Hyman, just their speed on to the puck and creating turnovers, they've paired well with John. John's been really responsible right from the faceoffs and having those guys organized and then getting the puck back and being in a good spot. We matched them up as best we could against the MacKinnon line in Colorado and I thought they did a good job playing against a really challenging player and in the Arizona game they were pretty dominant. There hasn't been a lot that shows up on the scoreboard at this point, but we've been very happy with their play."

Tavares insists there's no big shift in dynamic on the new-look line. 

"It doesn’t really change the feel of anything too much," he said.

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A bigger change may be on the power play where Tavares has moved back to the net-front spot where he had success last season en route to 10 man-advantage markers. Tavares has just one power-play tally this season. 

"We want to try and use the lower part of the ice a little bit more when it's there," Tavares said. "It's not something we want to force, but we got some great shooters and that's obviously the guys we want to get the puck to and get those looks for them and, when we feel it’s necessary, use the low part of the ice to open things up top or in the middle a little bit more."

Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill said the addition of Tyson Barrie to Toronto's top unit (left flank) is on his radar. Barrie scored on the power play against his old team Saturday night courtesy a nice one-timer. 

"I'm there to be a shooter," Barrie had said before that game in Denver. "We've got a lot of guys who have a lot of patience and move the puck well so I'm going to try to be an option and take shots when they are available."

Barrie's goal against the Avalanche was set up by a pass from William Nylander, who was below the goal line. 

"When he gets that time and space coming downhill with some good speed it's a hard shot for goalies to handle," Tavares observed. "He's got good poise and mobility, you know, really light on his feet, ability to be deceptive that way and understands the game well."

Blashill, whose team lost 5-2 to the Leafs on Oct. 12, has identified two major changes with Toronto since the coaching switch. 

"I would say, for sure, their D-zone coverage, difference in where their wings stand, they protect the middle where Babs would've had them cut off the top. That's just a difference in philosophy.

"No. 2, in the O-zone it looks [like] more of a five-man unit with the active D where Babs' teams got the puck to the top and shot it with chaos at the net and, as a result, were one of the hardest teams to play against that way and this presents different challenges."

 

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It's been exactly one week since the Leafs fired Babcock and it's hard to keep track of all the changes Keefe has made both on and off the ice.

Yesterday, for example, the walls above the dressing room stalls at the practice facility were empty. Previously the phrase, "It's a privilege, not a right," was displayed prominently. Inspired by the late Johnny Bower, that slogan had been on the walls since January 2018. 

Is Keefe planning to replace it with his own credo? 

"I've never been big on slogans, frankly," he said. "We have a few ideas bouncing around. I don't know whether we'll get to it this season or not. Not really at the top of my list right now."

Previously, Babcock had put the words, "Play right, play fast," on the wall, which he had identified as the team's identity. 

The blank walls right now may be a message in itself with many players seeing the coaching change as offering them a blank slate. 

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One of those players embracing a fresh start is Jason Spezza, who was in and out of the lineup under Babcock and figures to play a more prominent role under Keefe. 

"We like to call him, 'Vintage,' around here," Tavares told reporters yesterday with a smile. "He's got so much game still left."

"He's got some hands on him," agreed Kasperi Kapanen. "You see him in practice, he likes to make plays and dangle so it's fun to watch."

Spezza used his soft hands to spring the speedy Kapanen for a breakaway goal on Saturday.  

"We talked about it," said Spezza, "about having him push the pace a little bit, their D play a little tight and we had talked about it before the game and to see it happen in a game is always a little more rewarding."

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Projected Leafs lineup for Wednesday's game: 

Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Mikheyev - Tavares - Hyman
Petan - Spezza - Kapanen
Engvall - Gauthier - Timashov 

Rielly - Ceci 
Muzzin - Holl
Dermott - Barrie

Andersen starts 
Hutchinson ​

Scratches: Shore, Marincin 

Suspended: Kerfoot 

Injured: Moore (shoulder), Marner (high ankle sprain)