Leafs’ Babcock pairs Matthews and Marner to ‘ignite something’

Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews discuss playing together in hopes of busting out of their offensive slump, meanwhile Coach Babcock stresses how important the defensive aspect is when playing against opposing top lines.

TORONTO – Ten, 15, 20, nearly 30 minutes after the coach’s long whistle had blown and the vast majority of the Toronto Maple Leafs had fulfilled their media obligations, doffed their sweaty gear, showered and left, they kept playing.

A quintet of the young core dogged by the dog days of their first NHL season played out under real expectations — Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, Morgan Rielly, William Nylander and Connor Brown — encircled backup goalie Garret Sparks and played round after round of rebound, chirping and laughing at the north end of the practice sheet.

Free from the refs that won’t bite their whistles, away from the coaches who keep switching lines, and all those questions about their 3-7 mid-season malaise and parched power play and the Bruins and Canadiens eating up the ground at their heels.

Simply enjoying the game they grew up worshipping, the same game that has frustrated them during this ugly and uncharacteristic 1-6 home stretch.

“We’re not really working on things,” Marner clarified once Monday’s bonus session finally wrapped. “We’re just screwing around playing rebound with Garret. It’s fun. We’re joking around and having fun with each other.

“These are times when you’ve got to enjoy being around with the team. The stretch we’re in isn’t good. We’re trying to get out of it, trying to be more consistent every day.

“When everyone’s off the ice, it’s that fun stuff you do to try to get back to the feeling you had as a kid.”

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That light, boyhood feeling — elusive in most adult workplaces — has always permeated the relationship between Matthews, Marner and their road dad, Patrick Marleau. (Or, at least, the one publicly available.)

And now? They’re all hopping the boards at once. The nuclear option.

The creatives get to create.

“We’re roommates on the road, so we hang out quite a bit. We’ve played together before; we’ve had the chemistry out there,” Marner said. “I also think I’m there for support, make sure I talk to him while I’m on the ice. We haven’t played together a whole lot, so it’s gonna need a little warming up to do, but we’ve got to do it quick.”

Matthews believes their off-ice chemistry can translate to on-ice results.

“We spend a lot of time with Patty on the road, so hopefully the three of us can complement each other well, get some stuff rolling,” Matthews 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 here.”

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The “3M Line” handle is spoken for. So, how about “MMMBop,” a nod to the kiddie group Hanson’s pop smash? (That hit came out in 1997, the same year Marner and Matthews entered the world.)

Tales of Old Maid card games, PG movie nights in hotel rooms, car karaoke with Marleau’s biological offspring, mini sticks, cheery Christmas card photos, endless give-and-go’s through warm-ups, electric scooter races through the streets… and, now, lineys!

Take that, Blue Monday.

“If you like who you got moved to, you think it’s a real big deal. And if you don’t like who you got moved to, you think it’s a real big deal too,” Babcock said of Toronto’s latest episode of Whose Line Am I On Anyway? “The bottom line is, we haven’t won enough games here lately.

“We didn’t generate enough offence to find a way to win the game [Sunday versus Arizona]. We’ve got to find a way to be better. I wasn’t disappointed in our work ethic, I wasn’t disappointed in our preparation — any of those things — it’s just in the end we didn’t get enough done. You want to get enough done every single day. Sometimes, before, when we were winning, we didn’t get enough done, but we were winning. We were scoring. We need guys to score, and we need to find ways to win.”

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Take it as a sign of just how deep the Leafs’ offensive funk has pummeled that for the first time in the John Tavares Era, coach Mike Babcock is willing to risk splitting his most consistent duo, Marner-Tavares and their combined 114 points, in order to jolt Matthews out of his goal slump.

Unable to click with a rotating cast of wingers, the franchise centre is point-free and minus-6 over the past three games — statistically, the worst stretch of his young career. Matthews has scored just once in 13 outings, something that hasn’t happened since he was a rookie.

Marleau, the third-highest-paid man on the roster, has gone pointless in 11 of 12.

Marner hasn’t lasted more than two games without getting on the score sheet all season.

“He makes guys around him better. You play with guys like that, it kinda elevates your game. You want to be better as well, with how he competes. For me, any time I’ve been able to play with him it’s been fun,” Matthews said.

“Just get open, and he’ll find you.”

As a segment of Leaf Nation envisions highlight packages bursting with Marner-Matthews explosives, Babcock is quick to drag the dreamers back to earth.

“I’m not going to tell you it’s going to last warmup, a period, a game. That’s just what we had today for the skate,” the line-maker warned.

“The biggest challenge is when you play with Mitchy, and I’ve been playing him against the best players all the time, you’ve got to play against the best players. That means you’ve really got to commit without the puck. That’s the challenge. Tavares has done a great job for us like that, so we’re going to change things around for a bit.”

Popcorn sales just went up.



Andreas Johnsson, who suffered a concussion from a Niklas Hjalmarsson hit Sunday, did not participate in practice. AHLer Trevor Moore will be recalled in advance of Wednesday and skate on the fourth line… Jake Gardiner (back spasms) didn’t practice either. His status for Wednesday? “If Jake can go, Jake’s going,” Babcock said…. Tyler Ennis (broken ankle) has now missed a month of action and there is still no timeline for his return to the ice. “He’s full of piss and vinegar, to say the least,” Babcock smiled. “He’s in a good mood, he is in here every day, he is working hard.”… Kasperi Kapanen replaced Marner on Tavares’s right wing.

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