TORONTO — Lineup options for Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock were limited before the regular season began.
Babcock knew he wanted to play Tyler Bozak with James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri with Leo Komarov. That meant the prospect of lining up three rookies — Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and Zach Hyman — on the very same line.
"So, there wasn’t a whole bunch more options," Babcock said. "That’s basically what it was."
The trio, which Babcock grew to both love and hate, was devastating in the Leafs’ 4-3 overtime win Monday night in Game 3 of their first-round series with Washington.
Matthews had a goal, an assist and six shots while Nylander scored once and fired nine attempts. Hyman played the familiar role of muscle, helping to set up a goal before drawing the Lars Eller high-sticking penalty which led to Tyler Bozak’s overtime winner.
The unit dominated the puck all night long. The blend of speed and skill between Matthews and Nylander, along with the force and persistence of Hyman, were just too much for the Capitals to handle. Even-strength shot attempts were 23-5 when Nylander was on the ice (82 per cent); 21-7 when Hyman was on the ice (75 per cent); and 20-10 with Matthews out there (67 per cent).
"I just thought they were good all night," Babcock said after the win, which gave the Leafs a 2-1 series advantage heading into Game 4 on Wednesday night. "I thought they territorially controlled the play a lot. They had a lot of possession time. I thought they were dangerous. I thought they were skating."
Babcock wasn’t always enamoured by those three players together. While he stuck with the combination of Matthews and Hyman all season, he often flipped Nylander for Connor Brown on the right wing — preferring the Toronto native as a more reliable defensive option.
The numbers, per Corsica Hockey, suggest the unit functioned far more effectively with the Swede on the wing:
Hyman/Matthews/Nylander: 55 per cent
Hyman/Matthews/Brown: 49 per cent
SCORING CHANCE PERCENTAGE
Hyman/Matthews/Nylander: 57 per cent
Hyman/Matthews/Brown: 48 per cent
Babcock took advantage of home-ice in Game 3, getting the unit away from the Capitals’ top trio of defenders — John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Dmitry Orlov — and matching them a bit more against their third unit pairing of Kevin Shattenkirk and Brooks Orpik.
The coach also got his rookie trio more opportunity against Washington’s third and fourth forward units.
It was against the third line of Lars Eller, Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky and third defensive pairing that Nylander scored his goal.
Hyman lured Shattenkirk and Orpik with his hustle on the forecheck before Matthews picked it free and fed Nylander for his first career post-season goal.
The Matthews line saw little of Eller’s line in Games 1 and 2 and an almost overwhelming amount against the dangerous second unit of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. Even that group, however, was overmatched by Toronto’s rookie unit on Monday night.
"I think we feel comfortable going out there against anybody," Matthews said.
The 19-year-old came up point-less in the first two games in Washington — where Caps coach Barry Trotz had last change and control of the matchups — but emerged in the second half of Saturday’s double OT win.
He got his first playoff goal against the Kuznetsov line, speeding into the offensive zone before firing a shot that bounced off Carlson, the face of Nate Schmidt (playing for an injured Karl Alzner), Matthews’ body and, finally, Caps goaltender Braden Holtby.
Matthews stuck with the rebound and eventually batted the puck out of mid-air for Toronto’s first goal.
Babcock thought Matthews was doing just fine before Monday’s breakout performance, but believed that Nylander had his best game of the playoffs in Game 3 with the "best legs he’s had."
"Hyman’s just the same every day," Babcock added of one of his favourite performers. "It was just another day for him."
He added: "That line was good."