Why it’s already time for the Maple Leafs to reunite Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews

BOSTON — A day before Game 1 against the Boston Bruins, Sheldon Keefe was asked how easy it was for him to return a healthy(ish) Max Domi to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ No. 1 line in place of Mitch Marner.

“Very easy,” the Leafs head coach replied. “That decision was made weeks ago.”

Keefe and his staff may have to reconsider that decision already in the aftermath of a blowout loss in Game 1 which saw the Leafs score only once on a goal from David Kämpf. It may be time, that is, to reunite Marner with Matthews.

Discipline and special teams were both major problems in the 5-1 loss, but the central question moving forward for the Leafs may be this: How do they create more offence against a Bruins team that doesn’t give up much, especially if William Nylander isn’t around to help?

The Leafs have scored two or fewer goals in eight straight playoff games dating back to last season.

Matthews hasn’t scored in his last six postseason outings. He finished with five shots on 10 attempts in Game 1. He wasn’t overly dangerous, not like he had been during a 69-goal regular season. He did have the Leafs’ best chance that didn’t result in a goal, when he fired a shot off the post after Jeremy Swayman wandered out of the Boston crease.

The Leafs’ No. 1 line was just OK. Nothing like the juggernaut it became late in the regular season, with results so good that getting it back together for Game 1 was “easy” — not only when Domi returned from injury but when Marner returned from a high ankle sprain a couple weeks before that.

The line was ineffective in the early going especially. Shots were 5-1 for the Bruins when the trio of Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi and Matthews was on the ice in the first period.

Domi struggled to keep his emotions in check right from puck drop. Jostling with Brad Marchand for positioning on the opening draw, Domi got a talking to from referee Gord Dwyer. He ultimately took two penalties in the game, including a retaliatory slash on Marchand’s hand that preceded the Bruins’ fourth goal.

Keefe called it an “undisciplined” penalty afterward.

There was little of the Domi who looked so electric next to Matthews down the stretch, the one who created glorious shooting opportunities for the greatest shooter in the world. He seemed a little too wound up in his first playoff game for the Leafs.


Max Domi is ready for the spotlight that comes with playing for the Maple Leafs in the playoffs

Reconnecting Marner with Matthews though is less about Domi and more about Marner and giving that unit as much juice as possible to score. Because if the Leafs are going to win this series, they’re going to need that line to score and score a lot, even more so in the absence of Nylander.

Marner represents the best chance of making that happen.

He didn’t get on the ice enough in Game 1, a byproduct, in part, of not playing with Matthews.

Marner was tied for sixth among Leafs forwards in logging just 10:37 at five-on-five. He played less than Matthews (14:49), Bertuzzi (13:37), Domi (13:04), Kämpf (10:52), Calle Järnkrok (10:46) and as much as his centre for Game 1, John Tavares.

Marner averaged 14.5 five-on-five minutes per game during the regular season. He played a lot less than normal and that needs to change in Game 2.

Playing him with Matthews would get him on the ice more often and get him reconnected with his long-time running mate. It became easy to forget, in the glow of the unlocked chemistry between Matthews and Domi, just how much chemistry Matthews and Marner had for years and years — and not all that long ago this season.

They were really cooking in the weeks before Marner sprained his ankle in Boston on March 7, with Marner playing his best hockey of the season.

Over a 22-game period, from Jan. 14 until that March night when Marner was injured, the Leafs had outscored teams 18-7 when he and Matthews were on the ice together at five-on-five. They won almost 60 percent of the expected goals.

Matthews scored 51 even-strength goals during the regular season. A team-high 21 were assisted by Marner. Nobody else on the Leafs was even in double figures. (Domi, by the way, only assisted on five of Matthews’ even-strength goals.)

This combo is tried and tested. It’s the Leafs’ bread and butter. It’s time to give it another look, if not now then when?

Though they weren’t on the same line, Marner helped create Matthews’ second-best look of Game 1 when Keefe stuck him out there with Matthews and Domi for an offensive zone draw late in the first period. Marner smartly chucked a puck on net from deep, not to score but rather to create a rebound opportunity for someone else — in this case, Matthews.

That was what Marner hoped the Leafs would do more often in Game 2.

“We gotta be more direct,” he said.

Throw pucks at Swayman (or Linus Ullmark) from everywhere. “Just try to get bodies there and try to generate a little more from that,” Marner said.

Marner’s line — with Tavares and Matthew Knies — managed to keep the David Pastrnak crew off the scoreboard in the opener, but they weren’t dangerous offensively. Which meant the Leafs really had only one line threatening for offence.

Which explains why early in the third period, Keefe began loading up with Matthews, Marner and Tavares for the odd offensive zone draw.

Pairing Marner with Matthews would make the Leafs even more top-heavy, of course, especially if Nylander remains out for Game 2. However, the chances of that top unit scoring with Marner around to help make plays for Matthews increases.

In the previous three postseasons, Marner assisted on five of Matthews’ eight even-strength goals.

Keefe could even keep Domi there on the line with Marner and Matthews. That would leave Bertuzzi to join Tavares and perhaps, if he’s ready to return, Nylander.

That lineup would look something like this:

Domi – Matthews – Marner
Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander
Knies – Holmberg – Järnkrok
Dewar – Kämpf – Reaves

(The Leafs could also try to keep Nick Robertson and his potential for offence in the lineup if they wanted.)

Nylander’s status for Game 2 is a mystery at this point. With or without him, the Leafs are going to need Matthews and Marner to produce and produce a lot.

Getting them back together may be the Leafs’ best chance to make that happen.

— Stats and research courtesy of Natural Stat Trick and Hockey Reference

(Photo: Steve Babineau / NHLI via Getty Images)

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