TORONTO — They are becoming a team that haunts their opponents.
On their best nights, the Toronto Maple Leafs will embarrass you. And on their worst they still might beat you.
With Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner both settled into their primes, the Leafs have become a different beast than in years gone by. They are now a league-best 10-2-1 and seven of their game-winning goals have come off the sticks of those two players.
The Vancouver Canucks surely deserved better here on Monday night — Matthews said so himself. But he also wasn’t apologizing for delivering the dagger, winning an offensive zone faceoff and executing a set piece designed by Marner before one-timing a shot through Braden Holtby’s legs to completely wipe away the 49 forgettable minutes that came before it for his team.
“I think it just speaks to the confidence our team has,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said after the 3-1 victory. “We’ve been finding ways to win these types of games all season. … These are the kind of games that our team, if we want to be a good team that wants to accomplish great things, you need to find a way to be good when things are uncomfortable.
“I really liked our response in the third period.”
They were responding to a meek seven-shot output through 40 minutes that was the result of a desperate Canucks attack. After dropping two games here, Vancouver brought urgency and a fierce forecheck that completely smothered the Leafs’ attempts to execute clean breakouts.
But the game was still there for the taking at 1-1, and of course Marner and Matthews seized the game ball.
They had already connected on a third-period power play goal from Matthews in a 3-2 victory at Ottawa on Jan. 16 and produced Marner’s one-time winner with less than eight minutes to play in Calgary on Jan. 26. Two nights after that, Matthews had the 4-3 winner in Edmonton with under seven minutes to play.
In other words, this was no fluke.
Keefe seemed content to live or die with his top players on a decaf night against Vancouver, playing them 25 minutes apiece. Their line with Zach Hyman was the only one making any real inroads at 5-on-5 — with expected goals (65 per cent) and scoring chances (57 per cent) in the black — and they broke through on an offensive zone shift that featured Rasmus Sandin on the left point.
In a flash, Matthews won the faceoff clean to Sandin, who fed Marner on the wall. He put the puck right in Matthews’s wheelhouse while Zach Hyman provided a screen in front of Holtby.
“Well Mitch just came up to me and just said, ‘Look for me.’ So that’s what I did,” Sandin said. “Then he did the rest together with Auston so it wasn’t too hard. It was great that it worked.”
“It takes some initiative to create a faceoff play there for us and execute and find Auston to help us win the game, so that’s really good and positive,” Keefe added.
That and the strong play of Frederik Andersen were the only reasons Toronto walked away with two points and a three-game sweep of this set against the reeling Canucks.
It’s easy to get lost in the numbers, with Matthews riding an eight-game goal streak and Marner producing 15 points during his eight-game scoring streak. Zoom out and you now see Matthews with an incredible 58 goals across his last 82 games and Marner with 88 points in his last 72 dating back to the start of last season.
More important than the race for individual awards or entries in the record book, however, is the way the franchise cornerstones have started bending results to their liking. They have proven too much to handle through this initial tour of the North Division, stashing important points in the standings for Toronto in the process.
“Going 1-1 into the third after generating like seven shots, I mean we really didn’t have any business being in that game,” Matthews said after the third straight win over the Canucks.
“I thought Vancouver played an outstanding game here today,” Keefe said. “They certainly came with a renewed focus and energy level. I thought they played with a lot of urgency, it felt like a desperate team over there. They played hard, they deserved more than they got.
“I challenged our guys to find a way to be good in this environment.”
His brightest stars answered the challenge.
It shouldn’t be lost on anyone how complete of an effort the Leafs are getting from Marner and Matthews. They more than handle their own on the defensive side of the puck and have taken their special offensive gifts to an even higher level.
They seem to find at least one big goal a night. Heck, Matthews has 11 in 12 games on his own — seven of which have been assisted on by Marner.
“Like it’s hard to even call them hot streaks anymore because it just seems like he’s hot all the time,” teammate Alex Kerfoot said.
Toronto wouldn’t be on top of the NHL standings without them.