TORONTO – Maybe John Tortorella had a point.
You remember that colourful rant he went on about the secret science behind finding the perfect lines, don’t you? It required a liberal use of the bleep button when shown on television.
“It’s a bunch of bulls—. I get a kick out of us, as coaches… we talk about this, that and the other thing,” Tortorella said in November. “‘This is what I’m looking for.’ It’s a bunch of bulls—. We try things, and if it works, it works.”
Facing Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets, that duo combined to put three pucks in the net at 5-on-5 in just one night – continuing a hot streak that stretches back a couple weeks to when Mike Babcock united them with Patrick Marleau.
“I used them together, Kadri and Marner, last year and they were no good together,” Babcock said after Wednesday’s 6-3 win. “They didn’t even go. We wanted to try that, we thought it would be good, but it just didn’t work, so we went back to what kind of had worked. [Tyler] Bozak and James [van Riemsdyk] and Marner were, I thought, outstanding last year. It didn’t work this year.
“That’s the beauty of having more players. You move them around and, once in a while, you get lucky and you can tell everyone how smart you are.”
The Leafs coach is a deliberate man, but even he appears to have come around to Tortorella’s way of thinking about these matters.
No matter how it happened, the Kadri-Marner union has helped fuel a 9-1-0 stretch that’s put Toronto within shouting distance of the Atlantic Division lead. Call it a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck.
When Babcock initially replaced Leo Komarov with Marner on Kadri’s right wing, he was planning to limit the move to just the Jan. 24 and 25 road games at Chicago and Dallas. But they were too effective to break apart.
“Mitch decided to play hard enough and it didn’t much matter,” said Babcock.
That helped pave the way for a five-point night by Marner against Ottawa on Saturday. Incredibly, Kadri matched that feat four nights later. It came as part of his fourth career NHL hat trick, one he topped by taking a cross-ice pass from Marner and beating Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo yet again.
“It was great,” said Kadri. “It’s always a thrill to score three and contribute offensively, obviously that’s what makes the game so fun. That’s what attracts you when you first start playing, putting the puck in the back of the net. My linemates contributed just as much as I did.
“They found me.”
Kadri and Marner have produced the Leafs strongest puck possession ratings during their 10-game stretch as linemates – an encouraging sign given that they’re still getting tough competition.
This is what typically gets labelled “chemistry” in hockey circles – a term that likely sets off alarms on Tortorella’s B.S.-meter.
Naturally, the offensively-minded duo is savouring the assignment. The game is a lot more fun when you’re producing. One of the reasons it’s been such a boost for the Leafs is because the Marleau-Kadri-Komarov was ice cold until it was broken up – with Kadri having only three goals and one assist to show for a 22-game stretch before Babcock had finally seen enough.
On Wednesday, he managed to outpace that entire month.
Marner has been shooting more in his current position and oozes enthusiasm when asked what’s working: “A lot of speed, a lot of creativity.”
“But at the same you’re going up against the best and you’re challenging yourself,” he added.
The Leafs have become more of a four-line team with Komarov dropped down, but Babcock still prioritizes his top-six. He’s recently gone away from chasing hard matchups in favour of playing either of his top two units against the opponent’s top two.
It hasn’t produced universally great results – with Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews and William Nylander enduring a couple rough outings during this winning run.
However, strong production from the Kadri line and the incredible play of goaltender Frederik Andersen – he had a career-best 54 saves against the Jackets – have helped keep the train on the tracks in those instances.
Much to Tortorella’s chagrin, that wound up providing the right formula for the Leafs on Wednesday night. It wasn’t how the coach down the hall drew it up.
“What I said to the guys going into the third period was, ‘Here we are, we’re set up perfect,’ and I hadn’t thought we played great,” said Babcock. “Let’s get out and play. Obviously, Mitch and Nazem and Marleau had it going, had it on a string, and they scored enough that the rest of us were able to leave here tonight with a win.”