The Maple Leafs welcome the 2022 Stanley Cup champs to town for a marquee HNIC matchup (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).

With the injuries (and recently, illnesses) the Avalanche are battling at forward and on the blue line, they are leaning harder than ever on their top pair and top line: Nathan MacKinnon is averaging 23 minutes per game this season and over 24 minutes per game since the start of December, including 30:22 in the team’s win over Boston last Monday. Mikko Rantanen is leading NHL forwards in TOI/game this season at 23:07, while Cale Makar is averaging 24:49 a night this season and 25:36 over his past 20 games.

During Colorado’s recent 8-1-1 stretch, MacKinnon has racked up 19 points and is playing 24:03 per game, Rantanen has averaged 24:42 per game while producing 13 points (but is a minus-six), and Makar has 11 points while averaging 26:34 (but is also a minus-six). For a Leafs team that has struggled against the Hurricanes’ and Islanders’ power plays recently, it’s going to be critical to stay out of the box and keep the game at five-on-five against an Avs team that has won a lot of its recent games on the man advantage, where they’re clicking at 35% in their last 10.

At five-on-five, unsurprisingly, head coach Jared Bednar gets his all-world center and all-world defenseman on the ice together in offensive situations a lot: Over 425 minutes of five-on-five minutes have been spent with MacKinnon on the ice this season, and the duo starts in the offensive zone over 67% of the time.

On home ice, the Leafs will likely lean most on the Matthews-Marner line and Rielly-Brodie pairing in a power-on-power matchup situation against the MacKinnon-Rantanen line plus (oftentimes) the Toews-Makar pair. Success or failure in that critical matchup — plus the special-teams battle — often decides your fate against the Avalanche, but there should be opportunities for other lines of a healthier Leafs forward group, led by the Tavares unit, to potentially exploit some mismatches at five-on-five.

The Leafs‘ lineup is expected to remain unchanged from the recent OT loss to the Islanders, including in net, where Martin Jones will start the first half of the back-to-back but not the second half, per Keefe. Sunday’s starter against Detroit won’t be announced until tomorrow, but Jones will be rested after his seventh straight start tonight.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the biggest challenge the Avalanche present:

I would say the pace of their play, and their top-end guys are so puck-dominant and skilled. They execute at such a high speed. That would be it.

Keefe on where Nathan MacKinnon has found a new level this season (130-point pace):

It is hard for me to comment on it because you don’t watch them over the whole season. As you get ready to play them, you start to focus a little bit more, but he has been so good for so long. That is it. He has such confidence.

They are leaning on him more than ever. He had 30 minutes the other night. Their top guys are carrying the mail for them in lots of ways. Certainly, he is leading the way.

Keefe on the Devon Toews – Cale Makar pairing:

First of all, the footwork, the speed, and the way they can work together as a pairing offensively and defensively works really well. Toews has the ability to make his own plays and finish his own plays, but also, from what I see, he has a great presence of mind to cover and pick his spots well knowing that Makar is going to be really aggressive.

They have a great comfort playing together for a long time and having success together as a pair and as a team. It is certainly a good match. It is one where pucks are hard to come by when those guys are out there.

Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Avalanche

In the season-to-date statistics, the Avalanche hold the advantage over the Leafs in three out of five offensive categories and four out of five defensive categories.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#23 Matthew Knies – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#29 Pontus Holmberg – #11 Max Domi – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#74 Bobby McMann – #64 David Kampf – #18 Noah Gregor

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#22 Jake McCabe – #2 Simon Benoit
#55 Mark Giordano – #37 Timothy Liljegren

Starter: #31 Martin Jones
#35 Ilya Samsonov

Scratched: Conor Timmins, William Lagesson
Injured: John Klingberg, Joseph Woll, Ryan Reaves

Colorado Avalanche Projected Lines

#27 Jonathan Drouin – #29 Nathan MacKinnon – #96 Mikko Rantanen
#13 Valeri Nichushkin – #20 Ross Colton – #25 Logan O’Connor
#11 Andrew Cogliano – #12 Ryan Johansen – #94 Joel Kiviranta
#56 Kurtis MacDermid  – #22 Fredrik Olofsson – #41 Jason Polin

#7 Devon Toews – #8 Cale Makar
#3 Jack Johnson – #49 Samuel Girard
#82 Caleb Jones – #70 Sam Malinski

Starter: #40 Alexandar Georgiev
#50 Ivan Prosvetov

Injured/Out: Gabriel Landeskog, Pavel Francouz, Arrturi Lehkonen, Bowen Byram, Miles Wood, Josh Manson