Maple Leafs’ Marner-Matthews combo make most of rare opportunity

The Maple Leafs let the Bruins tie it up late in the third, but Morgan Rielly got Toronto the 4-3 win in overtime.

TORONTO – Lineup high jinks, a helping of hatred, and a harmful shot block.

Saturday’s hot and speedy showdown between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins — their first since April’s thrilling seven-game series — had a lot of juice and a little bit of everything else.

What the Leafs’ nail-biting 4-3 overtime victory didn’t have was an October feel. And for that — plus the unusual treat of seeing Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner operate on the same line — we are grateful.

“Saturday night hockey, right? It doesn’t get much better,” Frederik Andersen smiled after his best 2019-20 performance to date, a gutty 43-save gem. “It was a fun game.”

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Muddling through the first two weeks of their great-expectations and hefty-paycheques campaign with a ho-hum 4-3-1 record, the Maple Leafs had done a decent job remaining straightfaced, not too flustered by their slipshod starts and fumbled leads, not overly enthused by their victories over lesser lights.

This one felt different. Better. Angrier.

After he’d deftly, patiently orchestrated some rather exuberant OT celebrations by teeing up a prime Marner shot that nicked off Morgan Rielly’s shin pad, Matthews admitted the rivals were “sick of each other” and pulled out the phrase “statement game.”

“I don’t know if it’s a statement game, but what I’d say to you is, it was more important for our team than their team. It was important because John [Tavares] was out, to find a way to win it, and it was probably even more important when we lost [Andreas Johnsson] that we got it done,” coach Mike Babcock said.

“Not all games are, as an individual, perceived equal. Some games you’re more excited for than others.

“When you’ve played them two years in a row in the playoffs, you know a lot about them, they know a lot about you. You want to see where you’re at.”

Babcock’s Maple Leafs barged out of the gates with a sneak starting line of Johnsson, Matthews and Marner — who played a little right-wing switcheroo with Matthews’ regular running mate, William Nylander.

That surprise trio went head-to-head when possible during neutral- and offensive-zone draws against Boston’s mighty Patrice Bergeron unit, which entered the night accounting for an incredible 14 of the Bruins’ 19 goals.

Babcock’s theory is that ramming an offensive trio right up against Bruce Cassidy’s best forwards will force them to defend more than they wish.

Heat on heat.

“Clicked right away,” said Marner, following a two-assist night. “It felt like right away we knew where each other was going to be. I thought we had a lot of speed going through their own zone, the middle and making plays.”

The gambit paid off early, when some offensive-zone work by the Matthews-Marner group led to a Rielly’s seeing-eye point shot, earning the star defenceman his first goal of the year and the night.

“We haven’t played with each other much, but I think every time we get paired up together we get pretty excited out there and just try to make the most of it,” Matthews said.

“Just playing fast.”

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Rookie Dmytro Timashov’s first-ever NHL goal doubled the home side’s lead when a wonderful fourth-line shift that began in the defensive zone — as, well, pretty much all their shifts do — resulted in strong cycle work in the offensive-zone and a clean, glove-side wrister from the high slot that zinged past Jaroslav Halak.

Timashov, now with an impressive four points in six NHL games, high-kicked his left leg and threw both arms in the air, as Frederik Gauthier thoughtfully fetched the souvenir for his linemate.

“If you go through everything that’s going on in our program, the fourth line is, like, steady on the rudder every night,” Babcock said. “They just seem to do their job, so I spend less time worrying about them and everything else.”

As worrying Leafs fans know too well, Boston doesn’t simply roll over.

Jake DeBrusk caught Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin puck-watching, slipped undetected into the slot with 20.6 seconds remaining in the first period, and buried a Charlie Coyle feed for his long-awaited first in a pressurized contract year.

The second period saw no scoring, but the Maple Leafs were forced to kill a string of penalties resulting from getting hemmed in for air-sucking stretches.

“Kinda screwed over our D-men with long shifts stuck in our own zone,” Matthews said.

Andersen was their best penalty killer.

Johnsson was forced to leave the game injured after blocking a full-wind-up Brandon Carlo slap shot with his left leg, bumping Trevor Moore to the top line alongside Matthews and Marner for the critical third frame.

X-rays on the top-line left winger’s leg were negative, so he’s not expected out long.

Boston’s Danton Heinen knotted the game at two early in the final period before Alexander Kerfoot, getting his first taste of life as a second-line centre with Tavares (finger) sidelined, restored Toronto’s lead by finding some ice in the slot area.

Notorious Leaf killer David Pastrnak lasered his ninth of the season and 19th(!) against Toronto in the final five minutes (from Bergeron and Brad Marchand, of course) to send the affair into bonus hockey and assure each combatant at least one standings point.

That’s when Toronto’s creative Big 3—Rielly, Matthews, Marner—got busy.

“Two really good players going back and forth with it,” Rielly said, downplaying his winner. “When they’re on the ice together, it’s great. You just kinda let them do the work.”

Without a doubt, it was the most intriguing and passionate, most physical and entertaining, 60-plus minutes waged by the Leafs in this young campaign.

“A team within the division, not having John, just kind of a point in our year where we want to get going, and I think we answered the bell,” Rielly said.

“Not as clean as we wanted to win, but we got it done anyway.”

Round 2 goes Tuesday at TD Garden, where these evenly matched Atlantic Division titans go at it again.

Babcock wouldn’t commit to an encore for the Marner-Matthews combo, but we already know the people’s vote.

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