This road trip is going to be a stiff test of the Maple Leafs’ mettle starting with tonight’s matchup in Denver, Colorado (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC).

Three of the next four opponents are playing really good hockey at the moment — Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis — and the only weak opposition, Arizona, will be fresh off of three days of rest when the Leafs visit them as a tired team in the second half of a back-to-back.

A bit of a shellshocked reaction at the start of the game tonight against a hot Avalanche team (8-1-1 L10) that has had a chance to settle into a game-every-other day routine since the new year would be understandable under the unique circumstances. That said, if the Leafs can come out tonight, stay composed, fall back into the solid structure they played with throughout November and the first half December — and get some timely Jack Campbell saves when the inevitable bits of sloppiness creep into their game — it would be a highly-impressive feat coming off of so little competitive game action. 

The two games the Leafs have played over the last 25 days consisted of lineups at less-than-full strength and a substandard competitive intensity for the middle of the NHL regular season. The Leafs will also be without Mitch Marner, Pierre Engvall, and Ondrej Kase tonight due to COVID-19 protocol (Marner and Engvall) and an injury (Kase), which means they will be running forward lines we haven’t seen this season save for the fourth line (Clifford – Seney – Simmonds), which played around five minutes together in Edmonton back on Dec. 14.

The absence of Engvall, Kase, and Marner forces Mikheyev up the lineup and dismantles the Leafs‘ checking line (Ritchie – Kampf – Spezza certainly doesn’t provide much matchup utility). Less insulation down the lineup means the Leafs will need especially big efforts from their forward leaders (Matthews, Nylander, and Tavares) in head-to-head situations against the elite scorers on the other side.

The Avalanche will be looking to pay the Leafs back after the Leafs stomped them in their visit to Toronto five weeks ago, and Nazem Kadri — who is having a contract year and a half with 42 points in 27 games (fifth in the NHL) — will no doubt have money on the board. Nate MacKinnon is lighting the league on fire of late with 14 points in his last six games, including a five-point game against Winnipeg on Thursday. Rantanen has 12 points over those six games; Kadri has 11. Gabriel Landeskog is currently riding a 13-game point streak dating back to November 22nd (19 points), MacKinnon’s own streak is at 12, and Kadri is up to 10 straight with at least a point. This is an Avs team that is relatively healthy, loaded with firepower, and all of it is in great form.

Indeed, it’d be quite the testament to the Leafs’ legitimacy as a Cup contender — in terms of the maturity, structure, and preparation to their game — if they could find a way to ramp up, muster a competitive effort, and even just squeeze a point out of this game.

Strap in for a fun one tonight.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on his team’s need to play with defensive structure against a dangerous Avalanche team:

Definitely, we have to be a lot better than we have been. We have played against this team previously. That was a major focus for us in that game. At times, we did it really well. At times, not so well. We are going to have to be really good in that area.

We also have to acknowledge that they are not just an offensive team. They defend extremely well. They give up the fewest chances in the NHL defensively. They make it hard to get to their goaltender. That is a challenge for us at the same time.

Keefe on coping with the Avs’ team speed:

We have to manage the puck well. When you turn it over in bad spots, that makes them even faster. The transitions are really important for us to use to our advantage and to limit their opportunities in transition off of turnovers.

How we move the puck is a big part of that. If we can get them to stop in their end, that will really help us. Not easy to do so, but that will certainly be the goal.

Keefe on the role of an active defense in generating offense:

It is hard to score than ever, really, and to get access to the net. A 3-on-2 used to be a grade-A scoring chance. Now, you hardly get over the blue line on 3-on-2s these days. The ability to have that second wave to come into play is important offensively. We try to emphasize that as well.

There are a lot of players who have the ability to do that, but not a lot of players on the defensive side have the ability to convert. [The Avalanche] certainly have that in Makar, but he is not the only one. They have a lot of guys back there that are contributing offensively and do a good job.

It is on us to be really responsible defensively, do our best to eliminate that, and when they do get their chances, manage it as well as we can.

Keefe on game planning for MacKinnon vs. McDavid:

It is pretty similar in terms of the things you do with the puck to try to make sure they spend time on their own half of the ice as much as possible. Again, it is not an easy thing to do. Both players spend a lot of time in the offensive zone.

It is just about having layers of people, holding your structure, and not sacrificing that structure. How you manage the puck is so important. It is hard to have structure when you turn pucks over.

Those are the things we emphasize — be aware when you’re out there. We have good players as well. We need our guys to be playing on the attack and getting those guys to defend against us.

Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar on his team’s 8-3 loss to Toronto on Dec. 1:

No excuses. I didn’t think we played well. They played really well. The score was a good indicator of how that game went, in my opinion. We weren’t ready or willing to check the right way in that game. They lit us up on the scoreboard.

It will be a good reminder and something we’ll talk to our guys about. This is a dangerous offensive team. They have been checking pretty hard and improving all aspects of their game. We are going to have to be ready. They are a top team in the league right now. It will be a measuring stick here for us just over 30 games into the season.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #15 Alex Kerfoot
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#20 Nick Ritchie – #64 David Kampf –  #19 Jason Spezza
#73 Kyle Clifford – #62 Brett Seney – #24 Wayne Simmonds

#44 Morgan Rielly –  #78 TJ Brodie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#36 Rasmus Sandin – #23 Travis Dermott

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek

Extras: Alex Biega, Timothy Liljegren, Joey Anderson
Injured: Ondrej Kase (day to day)

Colorado Avalanche Projected Lines

#92 Gabriel Landeskog – #29 Nathan MacKinnon– #96 Mikko Rantanen
#37 JT Compher – #91 Nazem Kadri – #95 Andre Burakovsky
#16 Nicolas Aube-Kubel – #18 Alex Newhook – #25 Logan O’Connor
#56 Kurtis MacDermid – #17 Tyson Jost – #43 Darren Helm

#7 Devon Toews – #8 Cale Makar
#4 Bowen Byram – #49 Samuel Girard
#28 Ryan Murray – #6 Erik Johnson

Starter: #35 Darcy Kuemper
#39 Pavel Francouz

Injured/Out: Jack Johnson, Valeri Nichushkin, Stefan Matteau