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Colorado Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon celebrates his goal against the Maple Leafs with teammate Nazem Kadri on Wednesday. It was Kadri's first game back in Toronto after an off-season trade sent him to Denver.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

It was a night to welcome back friends and teammates to Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. A celebration and homecoming for one. A much-desired reappearance for another. A renewal of acquaintances for a third.

Nazem Kadri, as popular as he was prickly during a decade in Toronto, returned for the first time as a member of Colorado. Mitch Marner rejoined the Maple Leafs lineup after missing 10 games with an ankle sprain. Tyson Barrie, who was acquired in a deal for Kadri, played his second game against the Avalanche after 484 games for them.

It was an entertaining convergence, and an entertaining 60 minutes to match. Lots of offence, spectacular saves, a few significant, bone-rattling checks.

In the end, of course, not everyone could emerge happy, and it was the home team that came out on the short end.

Valeri Nichushkin scored the winning goal short-handed with 13:30 remaining in the third period in Colorado’s eventual 3-1 victory. The goal occurred at the end of a strange sequence in which Jason Spezza shattered his stick taking a shot, tried to keep the puck in the Avalanche end with the toe of his skate and had it taken away as Nichushkin swept past.

“It was a tough play,” Spezza said. “I was starting to head off and heard someone yell, ‘The puck is coming’ and tried to make a play. It is a game of split-second decisions and I made one there and it cost us.”

Frederik Andersen, who played well in goal in defeat, was hung out to dry by a teammate again. The loss dropped the Maple Leafs to 13-13-4 and 4-3 since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock as head coach.

The Maple Leafs honoured Kadri, who grew up in Southern Ontario and was Toronto’s first draft pick in 2009, with a video presentation during a television timeout. He earned a lot of fans by exhibiting an irritable on-ice disposition before he was dealt away during the off-season.

Some in the crowd waved his old sweater. Applause rained down.

“Part of me wants it over and done with, and part of me wants to enjoy the moment,” Kadri said after the Avalanche’s morning skate. “It is going to be a first for me. It should be pretty emotional.”

Kadri, who scored 161 goals and 357 points for the Maple Leafs over 561 games, arrived in Toronto on Tuesday and was flooded with memories on the drive from the airport. He later took a walk on his way to dinner.

“I definitely miss home for sure,” Kadri said.

Hours before the game, the testy centre mused about his return as an opposing player.

“It’s a little different walking on the ice from the visiting side,” he said. “I got a little lost. I thought I needed a map or something.”

Toronto parted with him as a result of his petulance during the postseason, but it is yet to find anyone with the same hard-nosed demeanour to replace him. He entered the contest with 10 goals and 38 penalty minutes in Colorado’s first 26 games.

He ended up having a quiet night, with two hits, one shot on goal and a subpar 2-8 in face-offs.

The Avalanche went into the night well rested, having last played on Saturday. The Maple Leafs were playing the second game of a back-to-back after an ugly 6-1 defeat in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Frustration boiled over after Toronto allowed five unanswered goals in the third period. The ending was so terrible that Keefe addressed the team afterward. He typically stays out of the dressing room after games.

"Normally I would not go in [the locker room] after a loss or a game like this, but I felt that it was important," Keefe said. "We want to be a team of high character and that cares for one another. I thought we just left our goaltender completely out to dry and stopped playing. That's not a good sign for our group. Hopefully it's sort of the shake-up that we need."

The normally steady Andersen stopped only 23 of 28 shots against the Flyers but was far better against Colorado, notching 27 saves. It was his first start in back-to-back games since 2017.

That is a sign of Toronto’s ineptitude behind him in the net. Its backups are 0-6-1 – and the team is becoming desperate now to keep losses from piling up.

The Maple Leafs entered the night out of a playoff position, fifth in the Atlantic Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference.

“I thought we battled but you always want results,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “There is always urgency. If you are not urgent in this league, you fall behind.”

Andersen was back on his game against the Avalanche but his counterpart with Colorado, Philipp Grubauer, was outstanding. He had 38 saves.

Marner, who was injured against Philadelphia on Nov. 9, practised with the Maple Leafs on Monday for the first time and was rapidly inserted into the mix. He had 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 18 games and was sorely missed.

Seconds after the puck dropped, he excited the crowd by making a steal near centre ice and charging into the Avalanche zone. No goal followed, but he immediately made his presence felt. Later, as Toronto killed off a four-minute penalty early in the third period, he barely missed on a spinning, twisting backhand.

He led all Toronto forwards with 22:53 in ice time, blocked three shots, had three takeaways and one hit.

“I felt good out there,” he said.

Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon, who has 18 points over the last eight games, broke a scoreless stalemate 9:45 into the second period with a hard wrist shot that flew over the goalie’s left shoulder. The score came on a power play after a hooking penalty was called on Dmytro Timashov.

MacKinnon set a Colorado record for most points in November with 25. He broke the record of 23 points set by himself last season and Peter Forsberg in 1995-96.

Zach Hyman tied it a little more than two minutes later, slamming a puck by Grubauer from in close off a pass from Alexander Kerfoot. The latter came to Toronto in the same trade with Barrie for Kadri. Cody Ceci was also awarded an assist.

Joonas Donskoi added an insurance goal for the Avalanche with an empty-netter with 1:19 left.

The Maple Leafs next play next against the Stanley Cup champion Blues in St. Louis on Saturday. It is the first game of a difficult road trip that includes visits to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.

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