Solid Maple Leafs seek to end 2022 the way they started it

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We don’t imagine there were any lumps of coal in the Maple Leafs’ stockings on Christmas morning.

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In fact, if we were to bet, we would say that there wasn’t a single one across the team.

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Coach Sheldon Keefe was asked after the victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday if was feeling good about his team heading into the break. 

Keefe’s answer was short, but he didn’t need to say more.

“Yes, I do,” Keefe said. “Very good.”

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As Keefe should. It’s a sharp hockey team, the Leafs group that compiled a record of 21-7-6 through its first 34 games. The total of 48 points has the Leafs sitting nicely in second place in the Atlantic Division, seven up on the third-place Tampa Bay Lightning. Unless the Boston Bruins find a way to start losing games, and nothing has indicated that they will, we expect the Leafs and Lightning to again finish in second and third in the division, setting up another meeting in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

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With 56 points and a total of just six losses, the Bruins demonstrated through the first three months of the regular season they’re the class of the National Hockey League.  

The other end of the Atlantic shouldn’t give the Leafs, Bruins or Lightning much concern. Points-wise, the Detroit Red Wings are the best of the bunch, which isn’t saying much, considering that the Wings are seven points behind the Washington Capitals for the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference. The Buffalo Sabres have won four in a row to get to within a point of the Wings, while the Florida Panthers, who have failed to meet expectations inside the organization and outside of it, hit the break below .500 and are on a three-game losing streak. Montreal, Ottawa, Philadelphia and Columbus have no playoff hopes.

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The Leafs are where they are for several reasons. Their best players consistently have been their best players. Goaltenders Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, both coming off disappointing seasons, have been rock-solid. Where the number of injuries the Leafs have had on the blue line would have decimated lesser teams, Toronto has collectively shrugged them off and steadily been one of the stingiest teams in the NHL. 

Health has been key at forward. The Leafs’ top five scorers — in order, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Michael Bunting — have not missed a game. Neither have the reliable David Kampf and Alex Kerfoot, nor steady defencemen Mark Giordano and Justin Holl. 

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All the while, Keefe has pushed the right lineup buttons and guided the team through some late-October bumps that have not bubbled to the surface again.

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The Leafs will finish the 2022 calendar year with a trip that includes games against the St. Louis Blues, Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche before returning home for a three-game homestand. 

The game against the Blues, who visit the Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 3, will carry some further intrigue as it’s believed the Leafs have debated the merits of potentially trading for Blues captain Ryan O’Reilly. At 31, O’Reilly’s best NHL days are behind him, but his experience could be a boon for a Leafs club that still must find its way in the post-season. There’s no rush for a decision, as the NHL trade deadline won’t come until March 3.

The Blues are five points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference and lost their final two games before the break after winning four in a row. 

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The Coyotes, meanwhile, are 29th in the NHL with 27 points, ahead of only Columbus, Anaheim and Chicago. The Leafs will get their first look at Mullett Arena in Tempe and for those who played major junior hockey, there is sure to be some reminiscing in a building that holds 4,600 for NHL hockey. 

Then, it’s on to Denver for a New Year’s Eve date with an Avalanche team that won six of seven prior to the break despite dealing with injuries to captain Gabriel Landeskog, who has not played this season, and No. 1 centre Nathan MacKinnon. 

Still, the potential is there for the Leafs to improve on a middling road record, as they have gone 8-5-3 in away games. 

Nearly 12 months ago, the Leafs started 2022 with victories against Ottawa and Edmonton. Finishing the year in similar fashion against the Blues, Coyotes and Avalanche would bring it to a welcomed conclusion.

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