Can Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs exact revenge against Nate MacKinnon and the Avalanche after January’s comeback win by Colorado? (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario/East/West, CBC)

In the first matchup between these two teams, the Avalanche’s top line and top defense pairing (the best overall five-man unit in the NHL) significantly outplayed the Leafs’ top players in the head-to-head matchup. The Leafs‘ second line also struggled that night, so Sheldon Keefe eventually loaded up his top line — Nylander, Matthews, and Marner — to try to stem the bleeding on home ice. The Avs owned the shot attempts and scoring chances in all three periods, chipping away at the 3-0 deficit and eventually winning 5-3 in regulation.

The Leafs, winners of six straight, are in a much different place 41 days later. Most notably, Matthews and Marner have been the league’s hottest duo over the last two weeks, piling up ridiculous offensive numbers and winning their minutes to a far greater degree (7-1 at 5-on-5, 68% xGF).

Keefe has also (thus far) successfully balanced out his forward group behind the top duo with middle-six lines of Bertuzzi – Domi – Nylander and McMann – Tavares – Robertson followed by a fourth-line duo of Holmberg – Kampf that has been providing the Leafs with really good depth minutes recently. The ice was tilted against the Rielly-Brodie pairing in the big matchup vs. Colorado in January, but they’re now on separate pairings and the Leafs have found some stability in the Brodie-Liljegren / Benoit – McCabe duos.

During their six-game winning run, the Leafs beat up on some mediocre-to-poor opposition before rolling over some stiffer competition in Vegas on Thursday. However, they have not yet been tested against one of the best lines and defense pairings in the NHL (Vegas was missing Jack Eichel and Mark Stone).

On the road without the last change, the new lines — and potentially Keefe’s faith in them — will be firmly put to the test as Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar will seek out high-leverage offensive situations for the MacKinnon-Rantanen line and the Toews-Makar pairing. Especially with Valeri Nichushkin out of the Avs’ lineup, the Leafs’ depth through four lines is in a better spot, but they’ll need to keep Colorado’s top group in check.

Notably, the Avalanche are a league-leading 22-5-0 on home ice (.815 points percentage). MacKinnon has a point in every single home game this season and has produced an NHL-best 56 points in 27 games at home (2.09 points per game) compared to 37 points in 31 games on the road (1.19 points per game).

The Leafs’ star production, pace of play, structure, and team game over four lines/three pairings is in the best place it’s been all season. They’ll now be tested against elite competition in the toughest building in the league. Mid-season HNIC matchups don’t get any better than this.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by the Avalanche:

They are just a really good team that plays well and knows how to win. They have elite players who make you pay when you make mistakes. They don’t make many themselves.

Keefe on Jared Bednar’s comment that the Leafs have been better defensively than they get credit for, particularly during the recent winning streak:

The guys have been committed to it. Our pursuit and pressure on the puck have gotten to be way more consistent and the way we would like it to be; it’s been consistent throughout the lineup in all three zones. That has really helped us.

We have defended the way we want to at different points in the season, but we just haven’t been able to put it together consistently for whatever reason. The guys have really been buying in for the last little while. We are going to have to continue that.

This is going to be our toughest test of this trip for sure. It is a much deeper group than we saw the last time we played Colorado. We know what they are capable of, especially in this building.

Jared Bednar on Cale Makar’s self-criticism about needing to be better and cleaning up turnovers in their 2-1 OT loss to Detroit:

He is hard on himself for sure.

It wasn’t that we weren’t trying to do the right things with the puck, but we had some execution issues. Part of it is sticking around a little bit closer to the puck to make our passing options easier. It is something we have talked about recently.

We did have a handful of plays come back in our end where we could’ve done a better job of a community breakout and a community neutral zone to get pucks out, get some better changes, and get fresh bodies out.

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 – #11 Max Domi – #88 William Nylander
#74 Bobby McMann – #91 John Tavares – #89 Nick Robertson
#29 Pontus Holmberg – #64 David Kampf – #75 Ryan Reaves

#44 Morgan Rielly – #85 William Lagesson
#78 TJ Brodie – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#2 Simon Benoit – #22 Jake McCabe

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#31 Martin Jones

Scratched: Noah Gregor, Max Lajoie
Injured/Out: Calle Jarnkrok, Joseph Woll, Conor Timmins, Mark Giordano

Colorado Avalanche Projected Lines

#27 Jonathan Drouin – #29 Nathan MacKinnon – #96 Mikko Rantanen
#28 Miles Wood – #20 Ross Colton – #25 Logan O’Connor
#62 Artturi Lehkonen – #12 Ryan Johansen – #9 Zach Parise
#56 Kurtis MacDermid  – #14 Chris Wagner – #94 Joel Kiviranta

#7 Devon Toews – #8 Cale Makar
#49 Samuel Girard – #42 Josh Manson
#3 Jack Johnson – #4 Bowen Byram

Starter: #40 Alexandar Georgiev
#60 Justus Annunen

Injured/Out: Gabriel Landeskog, Pavel Francouz, Andrew Cogliano, Valeri Nichushkin