Of the long-ago criticisms of Mike Babcock, some calls came from inside the house. The now departed coach had to travel to Arizona last summer to work on his relationship with centrepiece Auston Matthews, and ice time was said to be one issue; the Leafs had lost another Game 7 in Boston without Matthews cracking 19 minutes of play. There was disagreement over the why, of course. Babcock may even have been right.
But those days are gone. Just watch Matthews play playoff hockey, and play, and play, and play. Through the first two games of the playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs were essentially a three-line team.
And some lines were more equal than others. As head coach Sheldon Keefe said back in December about playing his superstars, “It’s a philosophy for me. I just think we want to get ahead in games, and want to set our team up for success, so getting those guys out is important for us. And we trust our team and we trust our bench, but I think they all recognize the difference-makers that need to be out there.”
They have been. In theory, the Leafs do have a fourth line, in the same way that some steakhouses have a burger menu. Going into Thursday night, among the 454 playoff players who hadn’t been injured in the first three minutes, Frederik Gauthier’s 4:13 per game ranked him 453rd, before Gauthier was removed from the lineup for Game 2. Kyle Clifford’s 5:28 ranked him 450th. Jason Spezza, at 5:54, was 448th.
Pierre Engvall, in for Gauthier, got all the way to 9:16 (430th) because he spent nearly two minutes on the penalty kill in Game 2. At five-on-five, Toronto’s four fourth-liners ranked 454th (Gauthier), 450th (Spezza), 447th (Clifford) and 432nd.
“It’s a short series so we’re an all-in mindset with our team, and when our number’s called we’re just going to be ready to do what provides us with the best opportunity to win the game,” Clifford said Thursday, before Game 3 of Toronto’s best-of-five series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, which was tied 1-1. “I think we’ve got enough experience with Spezza and I — and obviously Pierre, Goater — to be ready for when the situation calls.”
Keefe had said a bad start all but disqualified the fourth line in Game 1, along with the deficit. They were much better early in Game 3, with Engvall’s speed changing the line; having a fourth line that isn’t seen as a liability is helpful, in what could essentially be a five-round playoffs. Early on against Columbus, Matthews was blocking shots and Toronto’s fourth line was getting pucks deep, and trying to apply pressure.
Meanwhile, going into Game 3, Matthews led all NHL forwards in ice time at five-on-five, a full 43 seconds more per game than Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov, and second overall to Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor at 23:22 per game. Mitch Marner, who also kills penalties, was seventh in overall ice time, at 22:03. William Nylander was 15th at five-on-five and 27th overall, at 19:56, and John Tavares was 29th at five-on-five and 31st overall at 19:31.
It’s a heavy load for the best players, which has been among Keefe’s goals, and which reflects the team’s star-tilted salary structure. In Matthews’s last two full seasons under Babcock he was tied for 71st in ice time among forwards. In Game 7 last year he played 18:48, and Babcock would later imply that it was because Matthews cut his shifts short; he had, after all, played the same number of shifts as Tavares, who played 21:19.
“I never even thought about it,” said Babcock at the time. “I don’t know what his minutes averaged out at in the playoffs, haven’t looked at it. Just about 20 a night? That’s probably a little much for the regular season. Part of it is shift length. Also depends on how many centres you have. Also depends on how often you’re winning. When we win they play less, when we lose they play more because we’re chasing the game.”
Whether chasing or ahead, this season Matthews was 12th among forwards in ice time. After Keefe took over, he was ninth. Keefe gave his big guys more ice time, flexible linemates and playmaking freedom, with responsibility. Jake Muzzin, now injured and out for the series, said it best: “I think it’s just some of the guys feel (like they are) allowed to be free with the puck, and let your personality and who you are come out on the ice.”
And as Matthews said back in February, “I mean, I think the only thing that’s really been kind of given is just more opportunities. So I think for us, we’re just trying to take advantage of that. And obviously we changed up a lot of things; I’ve been playing a little bit more. So I think as players, as offensive players, it’s everything you want, right?”
And now he is being given all he can eat, and the pressure that comes with it. Matthews got eaten up a little by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski in Game 1, and his line shoved back relentlessly as the Leafs dominated Game 2. Matthews entered the Game 3 hinge with 11 goals, four assists and a lack of extended playoff dominance in his 22 playoff games. All you really could count on, as the series prepared to swing, was that he was going to get a whole lot of another chance.
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