Looming Matthews and Marner breakout is just what Leafs need
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are starting to heat up, which is exactly what the Maple Leafs need. Photo by Derik Hamilton/AP.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad.

Gabe Vilardi and Kevin Fiala. Dylan Larkin and … Dominik Kubalik?

Three weeks into the NHL regular season, those are among the duos that have combined for more points than Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

Incredibly, prior to Wednesday’s tension-relieving 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, there were 28 teams (!) that boasted two scorers with more combined production than the Maple Leafs stars so far.

That is not just a tidy piece of trivia that sums up why it’s been so noisy around this group during a disjointed start. It’s also the most compelling argument for why management should continue charting an unaltered path through the storm.

Unless, of course, you think 25-year-olds coming off 106- and 97-point seasons have suddenly lost the ability to twist defenders into pretzels and fill the net.

The probability of that isn’t particularly high even if Toronto’s top line hasn’t consistently looked as dominant at 5-on-5 as it was a year ago.

The underlying numbers remain kind to Matthews and Marner — they own 61% of the expected goals and a .967 PDO that suggests positive regression is in order, according to Natural Stat Trick — and they unquestionably have enough talent to lead this team on the kind of tear needed to quiet all speculation about Sheldon Keefe’s job security.

They may also be subtly working their way toward a groove.

The victory over Philadelphia was sealed with a John Tavares hat trick and another strong performance by goaltender Ilya Samsonov, but it also included two-point nights from the drink stirrers.

Matthews now has goals in three of his last four games and fired 13 shot attempts at Flyers backup Felix Sandstrom on Wednesday. His shooting percentage (7.1%) is slowly inching back toward an expected range.

Marner, meanwhile, owns a four-game point streak and should be able to find in those results some of the confidence needed to regain his game-changing offensive wizardry.

What they and linemate Michael Bunting are ultimately seeking is a big breakthrough at even strength, and it’s telling that Keefe has chosen to extend them a real opportunity to find it on their own.

The coach is notoriously fidgety with his lines and pairings, especially during rough patches. A year ago, he separated Matthews and Marner for a 10-game stretch where the Leafs turned things around following a rough start. But that’s about the only button he resisted pushing when the team stumbled again this October.

“I feel like last season those guys developed an even greater chemistry than they’ve ever had,” Keefe explained. “I’m not at the point yet where I feel like the answer for us to get going is to separate the guys that had some of the best chemistry in the league last season and carried us to great heights in the regular season.”

You may recall that Matthews won the Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award and Rocket Richard Trophy, while Marner claimed the league’s first-team all-star nod at right wing.

They also combined for the third-highest point total among teammates, trailing only McDavid/Draisaitl in Edmonton and the since-departed Flames tandem of Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk.

Of course, they are not counted on to carry the offensive load by themselves.

Tavares currently leads the Leafs with 14 points and delivered a statement performance in this latest outing. He completely undressed defenceman Travis Sanheim to score his second goal in Wednesday’s game, restoring a badly-needed cushion for a reeling team that was only a couple days removed from a blown two-goal lead in Anaheim.

“That’s a big moment in the game,” Keefe said. “They’ve just made it 3-2 and everything that’s been happening with our team here and trying to get a win and manage tight games.”

There was another encouraging sign in the dying minutes, when Matthews got a good look off the rush and pulled the puck back through his feet before firing a shot in one smooth motion.

That didn’t produce a highlight-reel goal, but it was the kind of play you’d only expect him to try in a moment of flow. He was obviously feeling it.

Incidentally, it also angered Philadelphia’s Travis Konecny, who briefly engaged with Matthews before being tackled to the ground by 39-year-old Mark Giordano. Bunting was pretty active in the lengthy scrum that followed as well.

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“I think that’s kind of what we’re all about here,” Matthews said.

“Those are the kind of things that just help build your team a little bit closer,” Keefe added.

With a rocky couple of weeks behind them, and a tough weekend back-to-back against Boston and Carolina ahead, the timing couldn’t have been any better.

The Leafs best chance to restore some calm is by buying their dynamic duo enough time to find another gear.

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