By DAVID SHOALTS
Monday, November 20, 2017
TORONTO -- It seems Mike Babcock, perhaps in honour of the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, is poised to play his version of Lucy and the football from the Peanuts cartoon strip.
The Toronto Maple Leafs head coach would be Lucy, of course, and playing the role of hapless Charlie Brown is Leafs Nation with brand-new linemates Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner as the football. Babcock isn't even bothering to lay on any suspense for Leafs fans. He already said he plans to snatch the football away just as Charlie Brown is dreaming about giving it a good kick on Monday night.
"No, not at all. We'll go back to the way we started for next game," Babcock said after the Leafs' 6-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. It was a game in which Matthews returned to the lineup after a four-game absence, with what is suspected to be a back injury, by scoring two goals, both set up by Marner.
At this point, the coach seems impervious to pleas about sticking with a pairing fans have dreamed about since both Matthews and Marner became NHL players last season.
Not even the prospect of Matthews facing his hometown team, the Arizona Coyotes, in his 100th NHL game appears to have any sway with Babcock.
The coach shuffled his lines in the second period on Saturday night when the Canadiens outplayed the Leafs for the first half of the game.
Matthews and his regular dance partner, right winger William Nylander, were split up in favour of Marner while left winger Zach Hyman was placed with Patrick Marleau and Connor Brown. Matt Martin moved up from the fourth line to play left wing with Matthews and Marner and proved to be a good fit with his fore-checking.
For those inquiring about whether the Leafs will try to make it seven wins in a row against the Coyotes by keeping Matthews and Marner together, Babcock grew a little testy.
"I don't know if you were watching, but the game wasn't going very good and we weren't very good," he said.
"It wasn't about who I put him with, I just had to do something different than what was going on."
Still, until Babcock announces his lineup just before the opening faceoff on Monday night, Leaf fans have hope. Besides, sticking with the Matthews-Marner-Martin line makes a lot of sense.
First, the Leafs showed during Matthews's absence they can pick up their defensive game so this lessens the chance anything can go badly awry during an extended experiment with the pair.
Second, the Matthews-Nylander combination was showing signs of wear even before Matthews was injured. Babcock split them up for part of a game in early November as Nylander went into a goal drought that lasted 11 games.
On the more esoteric side of things, Matthews and Marner are close friends off the ice and both are tight with Martin as well. All three players made it clear after the Montreal game they would like the line to stay together.
"Me and [Marner] have a good relationship off the ice. Me and [Martin] as well," said Matthews, who also noted he did not feel great in his comeback game until after the line was put together.
"It gives you a nice spark when you play with a couple of buddies you don't get to play with a lot."
The pair played together in evenstrength situations for 71 minutes last season, according to The Athletic, and for just 11 minutes this season before Saturday night when they produced their first points together.
"Obviously, got a couple of chances last year with Auston, but I think when we first got together the chemistry wasn't really all there," Marner said.
"But I think in the third period we kind of turned it around and got back to what we wanted to do and get the puck towards the net."
Marner is also dreaming along with everyone else about staying with Matthews.
"I think anyone you play with on this team, it's a lot of fun," Marner said. "It's always enjoyable to get on the ice with these guys and joke around with them.
"I think that's why we're doing so well, is we're just having fun with each other right now. We've just got to keep that going, keep positive but obviously it would be nice to stay with [Matthews]. We'll see what happens."
Either way, Matthews is looking forward to playing against the Coyotes (he grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz.), even if he isn't sure what number the game represents.
"Pretty cool if that's my 100th game, especially against the hometown team," he said. "Should be a fun one."
Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates with Mitchell Marner after scoring against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period in Montreal on Saturday.
GRAHAM HUGHES/THE CANADIAN PRESS