Maple Leafs close out road trip, calendar year by lighting up Avalanche in dominant win

Michael Bunting scored a pair of goals and Matt Murray turned aside 26 shots to help the Toronto Maple Leafs defeat the defending champion Colorado Avalanche 6-2.

DENVER — The easiest way for the Toronto Maple Leafs to wash away the bitter taste of a couple blown third-period leads and discombobulated defensive shifts that marred the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first road trip since the Christmas break?

No, not 23 flutes of champagne.

Instead: Light up the reigning champs on their own sheet. Spoil the buzzy return of Nathan MacKinnon. And ring in the new year with their 60th win of 2022.

Eager to rediscover their mojo and lock down a lead after their bumpy and fine-laden voyage through St. Louis and Arizona this week, Toronto dropped into Ball Arena with a half-dozen goals to score and a firm statement to make.

Toronto’s big guns, so silent two night ago in Tempe, all showed up for the calendar’s finale, dominating possession and jumping out to a 2-0 lead over the Colorado Avalanche prior to the 10-minute mark.

Before the game was 36 minutes old, the visitors had pumped five by Alexandar Georgiev, chasing the starter en route to a decisive 6-2 wire-to-wire victory.

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While mediocre showings against lottery-bound clubs can be found scattered among the Maple Leafs’ schedule, it’s encouraging that some of Toronto’s most complete and assertive performances have risen against giants like Boston, Tampa Bay, Carolina and now Colorado.

The five-forward power-play clicked. Goals from the depth (Pierre Engvall) and defence (T.J. Brodie) padded leads. And the penalty kill, shaky two nights ago, went a perfect 4-for-4.

Perhaps most important, once the Leafs established their advantage, they prioritized defence and stayed dialed in until the final countdown.

“The guys did a really good job defending against a really dangerous team with a ton of speed. We did a great job slowing them up through the neutral zone — that’s a key factor against them,” said goaltender Matt Murray, following his 26-save win. 

“The whole team played great tonight.”

With the party-pooping visitors sucking energy out of the crowd, Blink-182’s “All the Small Things” — the “Auld Lang Syne” that soundtracks Avs’ home wins — went unplayed.

Ball Arena’s planned indoor fireworks display after the final buzzer exploded anyway. But they left a haze of smoke that smelled of slight sadness.

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That’s because the Maple Leafs executed the way they are capable of, the way the organization expects to continue into 2023.

The Leafs’ top-six forwards combined for 10 points, sending a packed crowd out into the Denver streets to drown the memory of how their New Year’s Eve began.

“Just a cleaner game,” Keefe said.

“We got contributions from all four lines, all six defence. We get saves from Murr when we needed them there, when they had some of their flurries. So, it’s a good way to close out what feels like a real long road trip.

“I like the way the guys got it done tonight.”

Thursday’s misery at Mullett Arena provided a little motivation, as did a yearning to charter home and fly through midnight with the comfort that comes with a couple hard-earned points over a worthy opponent.

“Anytime you’re coming off of a loss in one you let a lead slip, it stings,” John Tavares said. 

“You want to respond and have a good bounce back.”

Mission accomplished.

Raise a glass.

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Fox’s Fast 5

• No team has dressed more skaters (34) than the injury-ravaged Avalanche this season. The Blue Jackets (32) rank second in the category, and the Maple Leafs (31) third. 

• Rasmus Sandin (neck) should return next week. 

“He’s close, for sure,” Keefe says. 

So… who comes out?

Smart money is on Conor Timmins, although the right shot’s strong playmaking and contributions to the power-play will make Keefe’s decision more difficult than expected.

Keefe: “It’s a good problem for me to have.”

• Mikko Rantanen during MacKinnon’s absence: nine goals and 13 points in 11 games.

Rantanen’s New Year’s resolution? “Eat less candy.”

• In 2022, Mitch Marner (118 points) and Auston Matthews (115) recorded the second and third most productive calendar years in Maple Leafs history. 

Doug Gilmour’s 121 points in 1993 holds the throne.

Matthews (58) finished his night with an edge on Connor McDavid (57) for most goals scored in 2022. And only McDavid (143) and Matthew Tkachuk (121) racked up more points in ’22 than Marner.

This marked the first year that three Americans scored 50-plus goals. Jason Robertson (55) and Tage Thompson (52) join Matthews in history.

• When MacKinnon finished his first shift after nearly a four-week recovery from his upper-body injury, the arena DJ cued up Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.” Nice touch.

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