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Maple Leafs’ Matthews-Nylander combo yet to maximize potential

| November 2, 2021, 2:48 PM

November 2, 2021, 2:48 PM

TORONTO – Nicolas Roy, with his 12 career NHL goals, looked at the Vegas Golden Knights’ steadily swelling injured reserve — Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Alex Tuch, Nolan Patrick, Zach Whitecloud, and now William Karlsson — and painted his team as a “David” Tuesday morning in Toronto.

Thing is, the club one dressing room down is hardly stomping around with the swagger of a Goliath.

“We’re seeking consistency here as a group — and we’re not there yet,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said, accurately.

Another night for the erratic Maple Leafs to build on the “signs of life” (Keefe’s phrase) they showed against the Detroit Red Wings in Saturday’s 5-4 victory.

Another night against an offensively depleted opponent.

Oh my, the luck: the Leafs have recently been dealt the tired Sharks playing their third game in four nights; the Penguins minus Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Kris Letang; the Blackhawks without Patrick Kane, who would later erupt for a hat trick in his return game; and the Red Wings sans Tyler Bertuzzi.

Yet the more talented side on paper has either lost those tilts or scraped by on good goaltending and nail-biting finishes.

Nine games deep, we’re still waiting for the Maple Leafs to dictate hockey on their terms for a full 60 minutes. For Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to bring their A-game on the same night. For the mix-and-match D pairings to gel. For the NHL’s most expensive power-play unit to strike fear.

“I think our second unit has been doing a really good job,” William Nylander smiled. “First unit hasn’t been buzzing as of late. So that’s something we need to improve on, that’s for sure.

“Just gotta get dialed and score.”

Toronto’s power play (26th overall, 14.8 per cent), offence (27th, 2.33 goals per game) and defence (21st, 3.22 goals allowed per game) all rank bottom-third in the league.

A shaky showing at home in a week like this one — regular Western Conference finalist Vegas Tuesday, two-time champion Tampa Bay Thursday, mortal nemesis Boston Saturday — and the foothold gained from back-to-back wins over the Blackhawks and Red Wings could cause more quakes in Leafland.

Conversely, a dominant showing could propel the Leafs upward.

That begins with what should be a gigantic advantage for Toronto up the middle.

With Karlsson confirmed out for four to six weeks with a broken foot, Vegas’s usual bottom-six winger Brett Howden (16 career goals) of all people gets the promotion to top-line centre duties between Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault.

Centre Michael Amadio, whom the Knights scooped off the waiver wire from the Leafs, goes from healthy scratch in one room to third-line pivot in the other.

“Not real familiar, but I have seen [Amadio]. I saw him in L.A.,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer says. “I actually called his old coach, Sam Butler, who is a friend of mine, coached him in North Bay. Sam filled me in on him with a real good report.

“I like the idea of some of the things that he’s capable of doing, and one thing he’s going to get here is an opportunity to do that because of the injury situation we’re in.”

The Leafs’ one-two punch of Matthews and John Tavares should feast.

Right?

Keefe is challenging the Matthews’ line work as hard without the puck as the newly formed Alexander Kerfoot–Tavares–Mitch Marner trio did Saturday.

“My rhythm and everything is still coming back. Touch and feel is still a work in progress. Just trying to make good on some of these chances I’m getting. It’s frustrating when they’re not going in,” Matthews says, “but as long as I continue to get them, I mean, I believe in myself, and they’re going to start to drop.”

The Michael Bunting–Matthews–Nylander combo has been outscored 2-0 since its formation.

“They’ve had some good opportunities to score offensively. I think they’ve been a little bit disconnected defensively. And as a result, [they’ve] spent more time on our half the ice than we’d like them to,” Keefe says.

“I don’t really think we’ve seen it play to its potential here yet. And I think part of it is the line coming together, and part of it is the three players playing at their best.”

On the flip side, the Golden Knights will rely on a healthy and active defence corps to pick up some of the slack that comes this crazy rash of ailments up front.

“Hopefully,” Smith says, “we just make it through a game without another new injury.”

One-Timers: Jack Campbell gets the start in net for Toronto despite Petr Mrazek’s win Saturday…. Justin Holl will be healthy-scratched in favour of Timothy Liljegren for a second consecutive game… T.J. Brodie plays game 700 tonight…. And Ilya Mikheyev (thumb) is back skating but not handling pucks yet. He’s still four weeks away from his projected return.

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