Maple Leafs continue to build - and win - under Sheldon Keefe

The Leafs put together a solid showing against the Colorado Avalanche for a second straight win. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

It wasn’t nearly as convincing — and it didn’t involve the same amount of stress or unknown, either — but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-3 win over the Colorado Avalanche in Sheldon Keefe’s second game at the helm was certainly more impressive than the first.

Even with their injuries, the Avalanche are one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL. After answering an early deficit with four first-period goals, the Maple Leafs’ newly-implemented schemes survived a healthy Avalanche push (stirred on by score effects and the money Nazem Kadri put on the board) to preserve the regulation win.

Tyson Barrie potted back-to-back goals in the Keefe era with a marker against his former team and Auston Matthews scored again, but Frederik Andersen should earn first-star honours for his 34-save performance.

The Maple Leafs will return home for some practice and instruction before heading onto the road again Wednesday.

Until then, three points:

Familiarity

There are a handful of players who seem reinvigorated by the Leafs’ decision to replace Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe, and Tyson Barrie and even Auston Matthews are two that immediately come to mind. But there is one player who seems ahead of the learning curve and comfortable already with the adjustment and current task at hand. Who that is shouldn’t really be a surprise.

Justin Holl suited up 192 times for Keefe over a three-year stretch beginning in the coach’s debut season at the professional level. While there are upwards of 14 Leaf players with experience under Keefe as members of the Marlies, no other player can compare when it comes to the amount of time Holl has spent working inside the coach’s structure.

For this reason, Holl has seen a slight minutes uptick under Keefe — but that’s not the reason to detail his history with the bench boss. The point is that Holl is providing the example that Keefe can reference to illustrate exactly what he wants from his defensemen.

Puck possession and activation from the defense are two important buzzwords when describing Keefe’s mandate. Holl provided an excellent example of those principles in the lead-up to Nick Shore’s equalizer just before the midway mark of the first period.

First, Holl notices that Nikita Zadorov intends to blindly play the puck up the boards, so he steps in front on Andre Burakovsky and sends the puck back down low. Eventually it comes around the boards again and Holl steps up on Burakovsky a second time, using his body to keep the play down low. He stays on the puck this time, working it free with Shore before finding Pierre Engvall behind the net with a pass. Engvall lugs it out of the corner, spins, and finds Shore with inside position on Zadorov.

The goal was the sole shot attempt for the fourth line on that shift, but Holl was involved in a lot of positive play versus the Avalanche. He finished with a 61 percent possession mark which was tops among Toronto defenders.

Possession, possession, possession

For the next few weeks or so, we can probably do a “What We Learned” subheader when analyzing Keefe’s changes to the Maple Leafs — or just highlight the new ways the team intends to preserve possession. Because that really is the key.

Tonight, the change in mandate seemed most obvious at the end of Zach Hyman’s his first shift of the third period when found himself with the puck, and without speed, in neutral ice. Under Babcock, the expectation was that Hyman put his head down, gain the red line, concede possession by dumping the puck in, and chase it with whatever energy he can muster before completing the change once another forward was around to apply pressure.

It looked like Hyman was about to repeat this pattern, but then he turned the other way, fed the puck back to the defensemen, and completed the change with the rest of his linemates.

A few passes later, William Nylander found himself with a high-danger opportunity all because the Maple Leafs maintained possession on the Hyman keep. It was the perfect demonstration of the importance of holding onto the puck when possible.

Dynamic duo

Forgive me Alexander Ovechkin and John Carlson, but no forward and defenseman duo is as exciting as Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar.

That’s it. That’s the point.

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