Coach Sheldon Keefe wants every Maple Leaf to feel part of the team wave as it crests Sunday in California.
So, winger Kyle Clifford is coming into the lineup versus the Anaheim Ducks for the last of three road games. Clifford is someone not intimidated by the Honda Center from his Stanley Cup years with rival Los Angeles. Also returning is defenceman Travis Dermott, who sat while Timothy Liljegren joined in tearing up the road, beginning with the team’s win on Long Island before moving west to beat the Kings and Sharks.
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“It’s the end of a long trip for us,” Keefe said after Saturday’s practice in Anaheim. “With Cliff, we like the opportunity to get him in a game. He’s a competitor and skates well for a guy who is low on your lineup. He’ll keep his feet moving, bring energy, be physical. He’s a good presence in the room and on the bench to keep guys even-keeled. He’s not the most vocal, but he’s very good talking to the guy next to him, a calming influence.
“It’s a good chance to get Derms in and give Lilly a day off. We didn’t expect him to sit this long.”
The feisty Clifford, re-acquired from St. Louis earlier his month with a brief farm stop, will be on the fourth line right side with Jason Spezza and Pierre Engvall. He replaces Kirill Semyonov, who in turn took Ondrej Kase’s roster spot Friday in San Jose. Kase has now been forced to miss two games with an upper-body injury.
Despite the great run the Leafs are on, Keefe has been careful not to over-praise anyone other than his two goalies. He judged the team’s 5-on-5 play in San Jose to be a bit below expectations and even Friday’s winning scorer, Wayne Simmonds, dubbed the game “touch and go.”
Surfing the coast has never been easy for the Leafs. Since the Ducks came into the league to create three-game California trips (though not always packaged as such by the NHL schedule) the Leafs have swept the Golden State only twice; in 1995 under Pat Burns, and three years ago when Mike Babcock was behind the bench. They have been 0-for-3 a few times.
A win Sunday would make it seven straight overall on the road, possibly six allowing two goals against or less. Jack Campbell will be back in net, with Joseph Woll a perfect 3-0 in relief. This is already the club’s most successful calendar month of any November with 11 wins.
Sunday also marks centre Jason Spezza’s 1,200th NHL game, but the 38-year-old isn’t fond of the Honda Center. His Ottawa Senators lost all three games of the 2007 Cup final there.
Keefe conceded Spezza is facing a bigger workload than anticipated, but he has been his usual energetic self in practice and game night and thus given the coach no reason to be rested to date.
“The thing that stands out is his love and passion for the game,” Keefe said. “The NHL is a great place, but it is a grind and it can wear on you. But you see a guy at his age, who’s had the success he’s had, not playing for the money (he’s on the minimum salary) but for the game itself and pursuit of a championship. There’s lots to learn here (for younger Leafs).”