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With win over Ducks, Leafs’ roadshow a smashing success

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If they didn’t need a change of clothes and to catch up with family, the Maple Leafs might not want to come off the road.

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With Sunday’s 5-1 win in Anaheim, they not only swept three games in California, but all four on a trip that began a week earlier in Long Island. They’ve now tied the franchise record with seven consecutive away victories.

The net result of all that is sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division, two points up on the idle Florida Panthers. After a stumble in mid-October, including losses in their first three road tests, they extended the club record for most overall wins in a calendar month to 12, a nice 36th birthday present for general manager Kyle Dubas on Monday.            

The Ducks have been very stingy of late and Sunday being the last game on the trip meant it could be a long night for the visitors. Not until the match’s midway junction did Toronto solve John Gibson, both goals coming right after tricky saves by Jack Campbell at the other end.

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Michael Bunting got a puck to point man TJ Brodie and Auston Matthews broke free long enough to get a nifty deflection past Gibson. That gave him goals in double figures a sixth straight year and one in the past three games.

Jake Muzzin sprung Mitch Marner on a stretch pass a few minutes later, Marner sliding the puck through defenders to Bunting. Alex Kerfoot’s goal 13 seconds into the third period made the Leafs too complacent as they let a power play chance slide and the Ducks started pressing.

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Defenceman Hampus Lindholm moved up to plant himself in Campbell’s crease to break the shutout and a number of close calls followed, until William Nylander and Wayne Simmonds iced it with empty netters, Gibson pulled with more than three minutes to go.

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The seven-game road roll has been done three times by the club since 1940, last by the 2002-03 edition. It was just the third time since 1993 that the Leafs have beaten the Kings, Sharks and Ducks on the same Western swing.    

“We want to finish on the right note,” coach Sheldon Keefe said earlier Sunday. “Let’s not let our foot off of the gas.”

Ondrej Kase was scratched a second straight game, but before puck drop, Keefe said he’d not been told the “upper body” issue had a direct link to the winger’s concussion history.

“There is no clarity on that right now, but that has not been designated as the case,” Keefe said, citing the good news that Kase was able to do off-ice workouts the past few days.

With the trip ending and two off days before the Leafs play again at home versus Colorado, Kase will have had a week off to recover from his ailment. His absence allowed Kyle Clifford to make his return to the Leafs, after being re-acquired from St. Louis and called up for the California trip. Clifford joined a fourth line centred by Jason Spezza with Pierre Engvall.

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It was NHL Game No. 1,200 for Spezza, now 38, but embracing his fourth line role.

“It’s an adapt or die league and if you’re not adapting then you’re out,” he said after Saturday’s practice in Anaheim. “I’m on a winning team. I’m finding a way to contribute in positive ways. We’re getting shifts to the end of games and holding leads, drawing penalties and getting face-offs in the other team’s zone to have the (top lines) come out. Our second power play (of which he’s part) has been well organized and has given good momentum to us. Those are the ways I evaluate my game.”

Spezza tied Owen Nolan in games as of Sunday with 116 players still ahead of him, topped by former Leaf Patrick Marleau’s 1,779. In a pre-game celebration for the home team, Ryan Getzlaf was honoured for his 1,000th NHL point, all with the Ducks.

Travis Dermott came back into the lineup after a four-game absence and played well enough to add to Keefe’s pleasant problem of whether to keep him or back Timothy Liljergren to partner Rasmus Sandin.      

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