Kämpf, Kase finally giving the Maple Leafs' third line an identity

Jack Campbell made 24 saves for the shutout and Auston Matthews scored the eventual game-winner as the Toronto Maple Leafs blanked the Nashville Predators 3-0.

TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to have found something that has been eluding them throughout the Sheldon Keefe era: a third line they can trust.

Responsible David Kämpf and the all-out Ondrej Kase have given the unit behind Auston Matthews and John Tavares an identity, some growing trust and — what’s this? — a tertiary scoring punch.

“I think every game we are better,” Kämpf said, accurately.

Playing integral roles once again in Tuesday’s decisive 3-0 shutout of the Nashville Predators, Kase and Kämpf now have four points each in the past four games, all wins.

It’s one thing to have the Czech Line neutralize another side’s scorers and finish shifts with O-zone momentum. It’s another to watch the close pals go off on mini goal streaks.

“You can feel it on our bench, in our room that our players recognize what they're bringing to our team, whether they score or not,” Keefe said.

“It's great to see them get rewarded — especially two guys that, honestly, I don't think they care whether or not they score. They just know what they need to bring for the team, and they're gonna lay out there every night. These guys don't cut corners at all. Those are the guys you want to see get rewarded, because they deserve it.”

Keefe had toyed with rewarding the speedy Kase by promoting him to the Matthews line in Buffalo Saturday, but the coach disliked the fit.

So, even though the Maple Leafs have won nine of their past 10, Keefe can’t help but tinker with his recipes.

Such is a coach’s burden.

With a two-day reset between puck drops, Keefe dove into videos, clicked on charts and unspooled statistics. He was searching for a way to increase his group’s mediocre 5-on-5 production.

Toronto is a middle-of-the-pack team at evens, averaging just 1.7 goals per game 5-on-5.

That’s a significant drop-off from last season, when the Leafs were the second-most prolific 5-on-5 club league wide (2.4 goals per game).

And while a suddenly dangerous and consistent power play — plus a dialed-in Jack Campbell – have made up for the shortage, Keefe has reverted to Plan A to jolt his big guns.

That means linking John Tavares with William Nylander, and reuniting sniper Auston Matthews with assist maestro Mitch Marner (and, for a second trial, left wing Nick Ritchie).

Judging by zone time, line rolling, and scoring chances in the Leafs’ victory over the Preds, the early returns are stellar.

Toronto dominated the run of play, doubling Nashville’s high-danger chances 16-8, and probably deserved a more lopsided score.

Juuse Saros stoned a Matthews one-timer off a pretty 2-on-1 pass from Marner, and later denied Nylander on a breakaway.

The goal the Leafs could muster through 56 minutes was found on the man-advantage, when Nylander teed up Matthews for a blistering wrister that sailed short-side into the net.

Unlikely offensive hero Kämpf scored his third of the year late, providing the game’s only 5-on-5 goal and underscoring the value of a dependable third line.

“They’ve been great for us all year. I mean, those guys are just really good in all three zones. Kämpfer, especially, he just always seems to be in the right spots. He’s got really good chemistry between him and Kaše and Pierre [Engvall] — but especially those two,” Matthews said.

“Growing up together, they have a really good friendship off the ice, and it leads to a lot of really good play from them on the ice. They’ve been unbelievable for us.”

Marner slid home an empty-netter after some pretty stickhandling work through three Preds in the neutral zone.

Sure, the Leafs may not have been rewarded enough for their strong four-line effort at 5-on-5, but they didn’t give up much either.

The defenders kept their own goalie’s workload to 24 shots, and Kase sprawled out to make a huge block late.

“A little two-pad stack, you love to see it. Those are the plays that win you games,” Justin Holl said. “He’s been doing that all year for us. They've been one of our best defensive lines all year, and to see them chipping in on offence and winning games again, it's awesome.”

Campbell, making just his 100th career appearance, secured his ninth win and third shutout of his first full campaign as a No. 1.

He, too, spread love to Kämpf and Kase.

“We’re just lucky to have those guys. They kind of commit to their role of being an amazing shutdown guys but also have been producing a lot for us,” Campbell said. “We’re going to need them.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Kyle Dubas waited for St. Louis depth winger Kyle Clifford to clear waivers Tuesday before acquiring him for future considerations. That way, Clifford can report to the Marlies worry-free — not unlike the Alex Galchenyuk strategy from last season. A $1-million cap hit, Clifford gives Toronto a fourth-line option after it lost a couple of them (Adam Brooks, Michael Amadio) to waivers already.

My favourite story from Clifford’s first tour as a Leaf: Blissfully ignorant of the club mandate to wear helmets during warmups, he loosened up sans bucket.

“That’s a power move,” Matthews said in admiration.

• Mark Borowiecki explains why his fight with Wayne Simmonds stopped before it started: "He's a class act. He got me in the right eye. I was going to tuck my chin and throw rights, but he and the refs said, 'Let's be smart about this.' He spent time in Nashville, and the guys said he's class."

• Through 13 games this season, Matt Duchene (9-7–16) has already crushed his dismal production in 34 games last season (6-7–13). It helps that coach John Hynes has increased his star forward’s ice time by a generous three minutes.

"The trust from him has been a lot higher this year,” said Duchene, who aired things out with his coach over the summer. “I know what he expects, and he knows what I need to help the team be successful. That has been the biggest thing. The minutes have been a lot more, and it helps me get in a rhythm."

• Ilya Mikheyev recently had pins removed from his broken thumb and has been skating and attending team meetings. “It’s now about ramping him up,” Keefe said.

• Former captain Dion Phaneuf was honoured pre-game with a video tribute and a ceremonial puck drop courtesy of daughter Zaphire. (The Tavares fist-bump stole the show.) Phaneuf and wife Elisha Cuthbert have a second child on the way.

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