Matthews & Marner Paired as Maple Leafs Search for Answers

TORONTO — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are the last players off the ice at the conclusion of every Toronto Maple Leafs’ pre-game warmup.

As the in-arena music blares and fans press against the glass looking for a souvenir, the talented duo flings pucks back and forth, attempting trick shots and high-wire moves with youthful exuberance.

They’ve rarely skated on the same line in their careers, but the struggling Leafs seem willing to push that button in hopes of shaking their recent 3-7-0 tailspin.

Matthews centred Marner and veteran winger Patrick Marleau at practice Monday as Toronto head coach Mike Babcock put his forward combinations in a blender for the second time in less than a week.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

The Leafs felt they did a lot of good things in the latest setback — Sunday’s 4-2 home defeat to Arizona where they had a 76-51 edge in shot attempts — but Toronto continues to search for answers.

“We haven’t won enough games here lately,” Babcock said following Monday’s 40-minute session. “We’ve got to find a way to be better.”

And although the coach didn’t commit to his new lines staying intact when Toronto hosts Washington on Wednesday, that process begins in the offensive zone, where is Matthews is cold and winger William Nylander is encased in ice.

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Matthews has just one goal in his last 13 games, while Nylander has scored once to go along with three assists in 20 appearances since his contract impasse ended Dec. 1.

“Work harder. Work smarter,” Matthews said of the Leafs’ outlook. “It all starts within each other.

“We all hold each other accountable.”

Bumped to the fourth line against Arizona, Nylander was on the third unit with Nazem Kadri and Connor Brown on Monday. John Tavares, who scored his 30th goal of the season against Arizona and has had great chemistry with Marner, skated alongside Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen.

Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman
Toronto Maple Leafs Zach Hyman (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

“We’re working to find solutions,” Tavares said. “With the depth of our hockey team and the skillset we have on all four lines, it’s a great opportunity for everyone to play with each other.

“That’s a big strength to our team.”

Matthews and Marner, both 21, are also tight with the 39-year-old Marleau’s family, often posting videos or pictures to social media.

“That always helps,” Matthews said of camaraderie translating into games. “Hopefully the three of us can complement each other well.”

“Doing Everything Right” – Maple Leafs Mantra

Marner said while he and Matthews, who both stayed on the ice with Nylander and a few other teammates for an extra 30 minutes following practice, will no doubt push things on the offensive side, it’s important they’re responsible in all three zones.

“We’ve got to make sure we’re doing everything right,” said Marner, who has 19 goals and 42 assists for a team-high 61 points in 48 games. “We both trust each other with the puck.”

Toronto Maple Leafs' Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews
Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

Matthews, who does have eight assists over the last 13 games, said shaking up lines can be a positive across the board.

“Sometimes stuff gets stale,” he said. “Maybe you get a little pep in your step playing with other guys that you don’t usually get to play with, so hopefully we ignite something.”

The Leafs’ previously high-octane power play continues to be an issue, having gone just 6 for 52 since early December. And while Toronto has failed to capitalize, the club sits 31st in man-advantage opportunities this season — 10 fewer than the 30th-ranked team.

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“We had a power play last night and we didn’t use it,” said Babcock, whose club has lost five straight and six of seven at home. “You get your opportunity, you want to make good on it, and we didn’t.”

Toronto (29-17-2) will have seven days off after welcoming Washington (27-16-5), the reigning Stanley Cup champions, thanks to a combination of the all-star break and the team’s league-mandated bye week.

That means there’s just one chance to change the narrative swirling around a team that’s a pedestrian 9-9-2 over its last 20 to sit just a point ahead of Boston and Montreal for second in the Atlantic Division standings before the Leafs’ next game Feb. 1 in Detroit.

“It’s some adversity,” Babcock said. “We’re going through it. We’ve earned it.

“We’ve got to earn our way out.”

Notes: Andreas Johnsson suffered a concussion Sunday, meaning the Leafs will likely recall Trevor Moore from the AHL to play on the fourth line with Par Lindholm and Frederik Gauthier. … Toronto defenceman Jak Gardiner (back spasms) didn’t skate after sitting out the loss to Arizona.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press