Why Maple Leafs’ top line may be the most complete in hockey

Auston Matthews had a goal and an assist as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Winnipeg Jets 3-1.

One line.

One half period.

One more denial of a contender to the throne.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ best line smothered the Winnipeg Jets early and often Wednesday night to extend their lead atop the Canadian division to three points and into a fourth month.

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Funny. Much of the pre-game discussion for Round 5 of Jets-Leafs circled around line matchups. How Paul Maurice’s last change and ability to throw bubble-burster Pierre-Luc Dubois and responsible veterans Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny over the boards against Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman could be the solution.

“That’s really what the regular season is all about, right?” Maurice had said, regarding his personnel adjustments, those tiny tweaks that can unlock the recipe to solving a specific opponent. “You have to understand your team by the time the regular season is over.”

But the way Hyman-Matthews-Marner steamrolled a tired Jets squad, we’re not sure any combination of players could’ve contained them.

Before a game billed as a battle for first place was 11 minutes old, Matthews and Hyman had each scored, Marner pocketed himself another gif-worthy setup, and all three had themselves two-point nights as the Leafs cruised to 3-1 victory.

“We were just thinking about our game and how important it is to get out to a lead,” Hyman said. “They’re a really good team, so we wanted to jump on them quick.”

Mission accomplished.

Caught flat-footed in their first game date after a seven-game road trip, the Jets were beset with both insult and injury in the first period and never recovered. Dubois trucked over defenceman Derek Forbort during a sloppy D-zone sequence that resulted in Matthews cleaning up a Hyman rebound. And Wheeler departed the game with an undisclosed injury. (Clarity on the severity of Wheeler’s condition will wait “a couple days,” per Maurice.)

“They came out hard,” summed up defenceman Josh Morrissey. “We lost the first period, and we ended up losing the game.”

Morrissey, the Jets’ lone goal-getter, found twine while T.J. Brodie served a double minor for high-sticking Stastny’s tooth out of his gums. But Alexander Kerfoot sniped top-shelf on a speedy shorthanded breakaway to even out the special teams.

Maurice’s squad was shut out at even strength, and Friday’s rematch will be another opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t.

It should now be understood that his counterpart, Sheldon Keefe, will rely exclusively on Hyman-Matthews-Marner as his default top trio. The trial of 41-year-old Joe Thornton as a top-line winger shrinks further in the rear-view mirror.

In their 10:37 together, Hyman-Matthews-Marner not only scored twice but generated 98.4 per cent of expected goals and created eight high-danger scoring chances while allowing none. Hyman, causing turnovers and driving the blue paint all night, had six shots himself in the first period.

“Those two are superstars. I just try to go out and do my job,” Hyman demurred.

Such dominance is all the more impressive when you realize they started the majority of their shifts in the defensive zone and were called upon to lock up the Jets’ final six-on-five push.

“They had a lot of jump. They were around the puck, and they attacked the net. That’s the source of two goals for us. Nothing too fancy about it. Just work from all three of them,” Keefe said. “Those three guys really came out and were really driven to make a difference.”

On the season, Hyman-Matthews-Marner has now outscored its opposition 18-8 when together. Marner (plus-18), Hyman (plus-17) and Matthews (plus-14) ranks one-two-three in team plus/minus. All three rank top 10 league-wide among forwards in the category.

“[Matthews and Marner] have been really good defensively right from the start of the season,” Keefe said. “Both guys have really worked, really focused on it. Pretty much every night they’re playing against the other team’s best players. Often these are some of the best players in the world. Here tonight again very similar, and those guys do the job.”

A question worth asking: Is this the best 200-foot line in the NHL?

“I just think as incredible as they look offensively, it’s amazing how strong players they are and how hard they work defensively and coming back and the little plays they make. All of them come back, take pucks away, stick checking, taking the body. They just make amazing plays,” said goalie Jack Campbell, improving his perfect record to 7-0-0.

“Mitchy is one of the best penalty killers I’ve ever seen. He’s so smart out there. And for them to play together, they just seem to have amazing chemistry and have amazing results.”

Campbell’s own results aren’t so shabby.

His save percentage is a sparkling .948, and he’s allowed two goals or fewer in six of his seven scattered starts — all while battling a leg injury that had him squeezing in extra work with goalie coach Steve Briere prior to the Leafs charter to Manitoba Tuesday.

“As a competitor and a teammate, I feel bad sometimes I get days off when the other guys are grinding. It puts more fire in my belly to perform when I’m called upon,” said Campbell, forever plumbing the positive from the well of adversity.

“I mean, I’m playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s pretty cool. So, nothing to be bitter about any time. I’m pretty lucky and spoiled to be here. Get to hang out with a bunch of cool dudes and play some hockey, so it’s not a bad time.”

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