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Maple Leafs’ creative line experiment off to compelling start

TORONTO – On a night decided exclusively by special teams and breakaway specialists, it was the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ambitious even-strength deployment that occupied our attention. And that of the players themselves.

“It’ll definitely be interesting,” said Auston Matthews, prior to Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Anaheim Ducks.

“We got a lot of depth, a lot of really good players to actually play with. So, it’s a smart thing to explore, I guess, at this point in the season.”

With a full complement of healthy forwards at his disposal for the first time all season, Sheldon Keefe went unconventional.

Thinking deep, the head coach spread out his top three scorers and Core Four forwards across three lines. They practised that way Monday and Tuesday, then unveiled the fresh look to overwhelming results.

Flinging themselves over the boards in shift after positive shift, the Maple Leafs funnelled pucks toward Anaheim all-star goalie John Gibson’s crease all evening, rolling at the opposition in hungry waves and forcing the Ducks to paddle uphill.

At 5-on-5, the Leafs outchanced the Ducks something silly, 33-9, per NaturalStatTrick.com.

And although Toronto’s actual goals arrived when its star playmakers shared the sheet in power-play situations — Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares all cashed in, and Matthews chipped in with a pair of assists — it was the club’s smothering even-strength play that forced the visitors into committing penalties in the first place.

While Keefe dispersed his greatest offensive threats amongst reliable role players like Ondrej Kase, David Kämpf and Ilya Mikheyev as a default, the coach also formed situational power lines of Kerfoot–Matthews–Nylander, Tavares-Matthews-Marner and Nylander–Tavares–Marner to keep minutes high and take advantage of some key O-zone draws.

Despite the juggling, each member of the Core Four finished with two points, a minimum of six shots on net and 20 minutes of ice time.

“We felt we outplayed them and dominated most of the possession,” Matthews said. “We created lots of chances, had really good opportunities. Their goalie played well.”

Keefe was a fan of flexibility the new lines gave him; the flow is a work in progress.

“We were in control of the play for most of the game. The only thing we didn’t do was score at 5-on-5,” Keefe said.

“The ability to move things around, that worked out the way I thought it would, and the way I had planned it in terms of getting Willy extra shifts up with John and Mitch, and I think there was one or two we got Auston an extra shift with Kerf and Willy.

“And I like that.”

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The strategy requires engagement and demands flexibility and quick chemistry. And considering how critical third-line production and the ability to adapt to injuries can be to a deep post-season run, Toronto’s relatively soft end-of-January schedule is smart time to tinker.

“I like it. It shows we’re a flexible group and everybody can play different roles and I think that’s important,” says veteran Jason Spezza.

“When you head into playoff series and teams start to key in on you more, to have the ability to switch lines and to move things around, the coach probably feels comfortable with it knowing that he’s done it before. And the players will feel comfortable with it knowing how you play with those types of players.”

Striking a high level of comfort is the Maple Leafs’ power play, which made good on its first three attempts of the game, making up for some tough luck, and fantastic Gibson saves, at 5-on-5.

The scoreboard was kind to the Ducks, who did well to swipe a point on the road.

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Their opening goal, credited to Sam Steel, resulted from a Pierre Engvall crease-clearing attempt that banked off Spezza and behind Jack Campbell.

Their second caught a Toronto’s top power-play unit tired at the end of double shift in Period 2. Killer Jakob Silfverberg beat Campbell clean off the rush, making the third period more tense than necessary.

Vinni Lettieri tied the contest late in the third, ramping the drama.

Following a thrilling overtime that saw Gibson ratchet his saves total to 41, Matthews supplied the shootout winner and the bonus point.

The only bad news for the Leafs was seeing a tumbling Timothy Liljegren’s head collide into the leg of Trevor Zegras. The rookie defenceman did not return for precautionary reasons but Keefe noted he was showing “positive signs” and might practice Friday.

Toronto’s next game arrives Saturday in Detroit.

Expect the experiment to continue.

Hockey Day in Canada connects hockey with the community and empowers hockey’s next generation. Host Ron MacLean and the Sportsnet team, along with Scotiabank, celebrate the game with a day-long marathon of live NHL coverage on Jan. 29.

Fox’s Fast 5

• William Nylander scored 17 goals in 51 games last season. He only needed 39 to equal that mark this season.

• Toronto native Jamie Drysdale grew up a Leafs fan, naturally, and gravitated to the play of a young Morgan Rielly.

“How he moves around the ice, how he controls the play,” the Ducks defenceman said. “So definitely a guy I watched a lot of and learned a lot from.”

Ducks substitute coach Mike Stothers, who guided Rielly’s development in Moose Jaw, sees parallels.

“They’re both creative,” said Stothers, filling in for a quarantining Dallas Eakins. “They are both willing to take some risks to contribute offensively, [and] if there’s an error or mistake made, they’re usually quick enough to recover and get back and help out.

“I don’t think Drys can do any better than having Morgs as a role model.”

• Jake Muzzin skated for a third consecutive day and has shown steady progression as he returns from a concussion. He underwent a neuropsychological test Wednesday. If results are positive, he could play as early as Saturday in Detroit.

• Jason Spezza on Marlie-turned-Olympian Josh Ho-Sang: “He put himself in some uncomfortable positions in the summer, where he had to work different and harder probably than he has in the past.

“He came here with a great attitude — and when you do that, you win people over. I think he has some fans in this room. We’ll be cheering for him to get a gold medal. It’s a great opportunity, and a great opportunity to show that he’s still growing.”

• Justin Holl and Ondrej Kase returned to action after spending 10 days quarantining, and bonding, together in an Arizona hotel. The first five days they only had access to a balcony to stretch and exercise, but the last five they could make use of a tennis court and had some close battles.

Holl’s Maple Leafs tennis ladder rankings: 1. Alexander Kerfoot; 2. William Nylander; 3. Justin Holl; 4. Ondrej Kase.

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