TORONTO — In all likelihood, this shall remain the nuclear option. Kept under lock and key until Mike Babcock feels his Toronto Maple Leafs need a big jolt.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner get to play together at 5-on-5 about as often as you can expect to see a solar eclipse, and even after Matthews ended a goal drought and the Leafs produced a feel-good win over the Stanley Cup champs, it didn’t seem likely to come around again soon.
“I’m not sure Babs likes it too much,” Matthews said after Wednesday’s 6-3 victory over the Washington Capitals.
“They were fine,” said Babcock. “It was good for Matty to get one. He got one on the power play.”
The coach isn’t trying to play the grinch who stole offence.
The Matthews-Marner duo has only played to mixed reviews so far. They generated 47.9 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts while largely facing Evgeny Kuznetsov’s line on Wednesday and were on the wrong end of the scoring chances, 14-11, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Kuznetsov had a golden opportunity against them on the second shift of the night — defenceman Igor Ozhiganov and Matthews were both slow to take away the Russian in front of the net — and surely that Grade A didn’t go unnoticed from the bench.
There were a handful of other lengthy defensive zone shifts, too.
The counter argument from the players would almost certainly be that they haven’t had enough time to get comfortable together. Absent two November games last season, and this one here, Matthews and Marner have been on separate lines for almost all of their other 171 times playing together in Toronto.
“I thought it went well,” said Matthews. “We had some really good opportunities, we controlled the play a lot. I mean I’ve never really played a full game with Mitch — besides power play, never really 5-on-5 — so obviously it’s a little bit of a feel-out process, but he’s so fun to play with. You get a sense of where he’s at on the ice and when he’s got it he creates so much space for himself with his edge work and everything he can do.
“You just try to get open.”
Babcock only triggered the big-red button ahead of the Capitals visit because his team had dropped six of seven at Scotiabank Arena and Matthews was uncharacteristically skidding along with one goal in the last 13.
It worked in a way he might not have originally intended, with the newly formed third line of Connor Brown, Nazem Kadri and William Nylander doing all kinds of damage at even strength. Kadri registered his fifth career hat trick against the struggling Caps while Nylander added three assists and Brown picked up two helpers.
That group had a good run of play against Lars Eller while John Tavares, skating with Zach Hyman and Kasperi Kapanen, was solid in his match-up role against the Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom/T.J. Oshie trio.
This was a tension-relieving win for the Leafs before their eight-day vacation during the all-star weekend and CBA-negotiated bye week.
No one was more relieved than Matthews, who heads to San Jose as the captain of the Atlantic Division All Stars and had come to rue a series of tough bounces these last two weeks. He celebrated enthusiastically after breaking through on a second-period power play with a curl-and-drag from his usual spot in the left circle and beating Braden Holtby.
“It’s a stretch of games where you know you’re not scoring, you’re not producing the way you want to,” said Matthews. “You know you’re going to go through times like that and we’re going through a time like that as a team. Through some adversity.
“I think in the long run, you’ve got to think big picture, and in the end, hopefully this is good for us and good for myself personally.”
Getting to skate alongside Marner and Patrick Marleau seemed to put a bounce in his step. He made no secret of his desire to see it continue.
The main reason why Babcock has been reluctant to pair his offensive dynamos throughout the last two-and-a-half years is because he believes they can each drive a line independently. Like the Chicago Blackhawks in their heydey with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, he’d prefer to split the matchup attention of an opponent rather than offering up one top-heavy unit to focus on.
There may also be a secondary concern about their play in the defensive zone, although Babcock has never said so explicitly. But on Wednesday night he certainly didn’t sound like someone inclined to put No. 16 back beside No. 34 when the Leafs return for a Feb. 1 visit to Detroit.
“I don’t know,” said Babcock. “I haven’t watched the game, I’ll go through it and see what happens.”
Matthews seemed to be bracing for things to revert back to the way they’ve been. And it’s not as if he can claim the old way of doing things has held either him or Marner back offensively during their time in the show.
“You know, it’s up to [Babcock] obviously and whoever he puts there after the break I’ll be happy with,” said Matthews.