As Max Domi fights for Auston Matthews, a loaded Maple Leafs top six takes shape

Timo Meier scored twice including the game-winner as part of his three-point night as the New Jersey Devils defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-5, despite Auston Matthews and John Tavares scoring two goals apiece.

TORONTO — Max Domi is literally fighting to stay on Auston Matthews‘ line.

The rented bulldog with the butter-soft hands and hair-trigger temper caught a glimpse of rookie defenceman Simon Nemec mildly roughing up the Rocket Richard winner along the boards Thursday and snapped into action.

“I just saw Auston and whoever the other guy on Jersey was battling, and I wasn’t a fan of that, so I went over,” Domi explained, following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 6-5 loss to the New Jersey Devils.

Because Nemec had the gall to touch his centreman, Domi instigated a scrap without hesitation — gathering 17 PIMs, the respect of his teammates, and the admiration of blue-collar Leaf Nation as fast as you can ball a fist.

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“That’s what he’s all about,” Matthews said. “He’s a team-first guy. He’s always gonna stick up for his teammates. I didn’t think he had to do that. But obviously he felt the need to. And I’m always appreciative of guys standing up for one another, and myself as well. 

“He’s an incredible teammate, incredible person. I love playing with him, and he’s gonna compete every night.”

The punching is one thing.

That it arrived after Domi supplied two tape-to-tape primary assists for Matthews’ record-busting 67th and 68th goals of the season is quite another. (And, trust us, the Leafs were much more concerned with gobbling cookies than sticking to their D-zone structure in this one, where they blew three leads to a bad team.)

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Domi is all passion and passing.

With two more apples Thursday, Matthews’ new go-to setup man is up to 36 5-on-5 assists. Only four NHLers have more than Domi, and they’ll all be off to the Hall of Fame one day: Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Nathan MacKinnon, and Leon Draisaitl.

“Probably one of the most underrated passers in the league,” Matthews said of his right winger. “He’s got such great vision. He can thread needles out there.” 

Domi operates differently than Matthews’ longtime give-and-go pal, Mitch Marner, of course.

Domi’s six fights as a Maple Leaf are his most in any single season, and his 116 penalty minutes have crushed his previous high of 82 (2022-23).

Toss in 20-goal wrecking ball Tyler Bertuzzi, and Toronto’s accidental top line — a trio that may have never formed were it not for Marner’s 12-game injury — not only has (dare we say it?) grit but appears inseparable between now and Game 1 next week.

“We’re just three hungry guys that want to win,” Domi said. “When we’re playing well, the three of us are hounding the puck and throwing a lot of energy at them and kind of just smothering them, and then making plays when the time is right.”

Adds Joseph Woll: “Bert, Tone and Domes on a line is unbelievable.”

This chemistry explosion may not have been possible had Marner not gone down hurt right before the stretch run.

Domi, who is on a one-year contract, looked lost as a middle-six winger early, then found his legs as an offensive third-line centre driving a secondary-scoring group.

But he’s never looked as engaged or as important to team success as he has flanking Matthews, riding shotgun along Route 70.

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“He has always been a guy who has that ability to make plays, but as he has progressed through the season and gotten more comfortable with his linemates,” Sheldon Keefe said. “With the way it is going with Auston, it has been terrific to watch.

“Max is serving his role on that line extremely well. Auston seems to be enjoying it and continues to do his thing. And Bert’s role is really integral.”

The coach appreciates Domi’s dangerous cocktail of skill and swagger. 

“He is a veteran in the league. He believes he can make a difference, and that confidence shines through at any moment. He is a competitor, and the opposition can bring whatever they want. His confidence doesn’t get shaken based on what the opposition is doing,” Keefe said.

“I have talked about (these traits) with Bert. Those types of competitors and that mindset is what was exciting about adding those guys. As the season is winding down and you are getting more prepared for playoffs, it is that much more exciting. I think those are the types of guys who will shine when things are most difficult.”

The nagging follow-up question: Where does this leave Marner?

Well, despite initial line rushes, Keefe leaned early and often Thursday on a loaded second line of William Nylander–John Tavares–Marner, and they buzzed around to a 14-1 edge in shot attempts when together.

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“I see lots of potential in it,” Keefe said of the all-star “second” unit. “It’s something I can move to through a game. When it’s hard to really get rhythm with three lines, it’s a way to simplify that a little bit. Get those three guys out there.”

Tavares, who scored twice in a losing effort, is most certainly a fan.

“Two of the best wingers in the game,” the captain said, approvingly.

Well, the way Toronto’s top line is generating lately, Matthews might argue he has a similar benefit.

Fox’s Fast Five

• Fun with numbers!

Matthews has scored 23.6 per cent of all Maple Leafs goals this season (68 of 288). That’s the highest percentage of a team’s goals scored by a single player in a season since Steven Stamkos in 2011-12.

Matthews’ 68th was also his 51st at even-strength. The last player to score 50 at evens was Teemu Selanne in 1992-93.

Matthews (274) passed Mats Sundin (273) for most even-strength goals in Leafs history. Sundin needed 981 games to reach that mark; Matthews needed 559 to pass him. Matthews also passed Dave Keon for third in all-time Leafs goals. He’s 26.

The distance from which he is beating goalies is incredible. He’s the anti-Hyman. While Matthews ranks ninth in goals scored less than 10 feet from the net (14), he’s first in goals scored from greater than 10 feet (54), greater than 15 feet (44), greater than 20 feet (35), and greater than 25 feet (27).

“There’s a lot of Leaf fans that, in their lifetime, haven’t seen that many goals in the NHL,” Keefe said. “Wherever this ends up going, who knows?”

• With Timothy Liljegren sidelined and Simon Benoit in a groove, we gotta believe Keefe is test-driving a potential playoff third pair of Edmundson–Brodie. 

Our pencilled-in bet for Game 1’s blueline:

Rielly – Lyubushkin 

Benoit – McCabe 

Edmundson – Brodie

• The Devils have allowed the first goal in an NHL-high 55 games this season. Yikes.

Tavares kept that trend alive by scoring just 18 seconds after puck drop on Toronto’s first shot.

• Matthews is keeping tabs on the potential relocation of the Arizona Coyotes to Utah:

“Selfishly, growing up there, them being a big part of me getting into hockey, I’d love for them to figure it out. But you kinda understand the position the NHL is in as well.”

• Leafs prospect Rodion Amirov battled courageously to pursue his NHL dream after suffering a brain tumour. He died in August at age 21. Way too young.

On Thursday, the club hosted his family. Fans gave Rodion a powerful standing ovation during the first TV timeout.

“Quite the moment,” Keefe said. “They should be coming here to watch their son play in the NHL.”

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