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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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The Toronto Maple Leafs (optional) and Nashville Predators skated at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday. 


One of the most surprising developments during Toronto's early-season slump was the fact Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner didn't pick up where they left off.

The dynamic duo dominated the league last season while playing on the same line. Matthews won the Rocket Richard Trophy while Marner finished fourth in league scoring. 

But Marner and Matthews failed to produce even one point in the three games they played together at the start of this season. They were split up following a 7-1 loss in Pittsburgh on Oct. 23. 

"We were just a little off," Marner said. "I wasn't playing my best game there at the start of the year and, obviously, have turned that around quite a bit."

Marner played the last 10 games on a line with John Tavares and produced three goals and 10 assists. Matthews also started producing, with six goals and six assists in that stretch. That helped the Leafs get on a roll. 

"I feel like their games are going now, individually," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "We're going well as a team. We've won a lot of games, but our production has dropped off at five-on-five, particularly with those guys."

With a rare two-day break between games, Keefe took a closer look at the numbers and didn't like what he was seeing. 

"Matthews has two assists in the last six games at five-on-five," the coach pointed out. "Marner has one assist in the last six games at five-on-five ... Rather than seeing that some things might not be working, but let's sweep it under the rug because we're winning, we think we can play even better."

And that's why Keefe is changing the core combinations despite the fact the team has won eight of nine games. Usually, it's risky for a coach to tinker with a winning lineup, but it doesn't feel that way considering the track record Matthews and Marner have together. 

"They enjoy playing with one another," noted defenceman Morgan Rielly. "They're able create offence and they're both pretty responsible defensively too. I don't think they give up too much in order to create what they get. That's always a good sign."

"How quickly we get out of our D zone, that's when I think we're really clicking," Marner said. "Just playing with pressure in our D zone to get the puck back into our hands quickly and then get it up the ice and try to have possession carrying it over the blue line. [Then] trying to find a play to make and quickly try and get the puck to the net."

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It won't be easy to get to the net tonight. The Predators, like the Leafs, are on a roll, having gone 8-1-1 since Oct. 24. 

"We know their top two lines have been pretty much their team for the last little bit here, so we need to defend well against those guys," said defenceman Mattias Ekholm. "You can correct me, but I think we have eight wins in the last 10 so, more or less, we got to focus on what we're doing well. The team game we're playing is demoralizing for other teams to play against ... The whole group has really bought into the way we need to play to be successful. We don't have the Matthews, the [William] Nylander, the Marner, the really high-end offensive talent, but we are a group together."

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Ekholm calls goalie Juuse Saros his team's best player so far. The 5-foot-11 Finn is 6-0-1 with a .944 save percentage in his past seven starts. 

"He's outstanding," raved Matt Duchene. "If he's not top five in the league, I don't know what he is. That might even be slighting him a bit. Obviously, playing in Nashville, playing in the West, you don't get the same media exposure as he would if he was playing here or Montreal or somewhere else. He's never out of a play. His lateral ability is incredible."

"This is his team now," said coach John Hynes. "The last couple years it's been that transition between he and Pekka [Rinne] and there were pockets when he played a majority of the games and was terrific, but now with Pekka retiring and him coming in ... there's just a different level of earned confidence about him. It's his net. It's his team." 

Saros has never played the Leafs before.

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While Matthews and Marner have excelled together in the past, it's unclear if Nick Ritchie is the right fit on that line. He failed to record a point in six games on the top line to start the season but starting tonight he will get a second chance on the first line. 

"He can finish around the net," Keefe stressed. "He is getting chances. He's getting looks. In the last few games, in particular, he's been doing some different things that we've been working on with him to get into good spots. The expectation or hope, at this point, is that those will start to fall for him, and he will get even more [chances] playing with Auston and Mitch."

Ritchie has just two points, both on the power play, through 16 games. 

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The Leafs will honour former captain Dion Phaneuf in a pre-game ceremony tonight. The 36-year-old formally announced his retirement from the National Hockey League today. 

Toronto made the playoffs just once in his tenure (2009-16), losing to Boston in a devastating Game 7 collapse in 2013, but Phaneuf is remembered fondly by teammates for his steady presence during tumultuous times. 

Marner recalled how Phaneuf made him feel at ease during his first NHL training camp in 2015. 

"I was getting on the plane for training camp, and I didn't know where to sit," Marner said. "I had my head down and was nervous walking on and Dion called me over and let me sit beside him. Just a really welcoming guy. We talked about London. We talked about some watches. If I liked watches, if I liked cars, and talking through that."

Phaneuf says he was simply paying it forward after Flames captain Jarome Iginla made him feel welcome in Calgary. 

"My first training camp, he called my room and he said, 'Hey Dion, it’s Jarome ... would you like come play golf tomorrow?' And I'm like, 'Yeah.' I was so nervous. I think I hit the first ball like 100 yards left." 

Drafted in 2012, Rielly was mentored by Phaneuf during his first couple seasons in the NHL and the pair remain close.

"That's a cool friendship that I have with him," Rielly said. "When I got here and I was 19, he was a guy I looked up to and I still do today ... [He was] a calming influence on everybody else. He liked talking to guys. He liked having conversations about what's going on in your personal life and I think that makes him a special person."   

"To see him, from when I first met him as a kid to now, a young man, I'm really proud of him," said Phaneuf. "I'm going to call him a friend for a long time." 

Asked about his legacy, Phaneuf says what matters most is how his former teammates view him. 

"I hope I'm remembered as a guy that competed," he said. "That played the game hard. That would do anything for his teammates."

These days Phaneuf is enjoying spending time with his young daughter at home in Los Angeles. He would like to stay involved in hockey moving forward in some capacity whether it be scouting, player development or something else. 

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Phaneuf said his biggest regret in Toronto was the Salute-Gate incident when the team decided not to acknowledge fans after a win on Nov. 20, 2014. That came a couple days after a brutal 9-2 home loss to the Predators in which fans threw sweaters on the ice.  

"If I could have a redo [on anything] it was not saluting the fans and the way that was handled," Phaneuf admitted. "That was under my watch. I was the captain of the team and I take responsibility for that."

But Phaneuf was still welcomed back warmly when he played his first game in Toronto as a member of the Ottawa Senators. He received a loud ovation following a video tribute. 

"The fans in Toronto are incredible," he said. "They give unwavering support. Every time I come back people come up to me and thank me for my time here." 

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Ondrej Kase will look to extend his goal streak to four games tonight. 

"You can see his confidence continue to grow and grow in himself and probably just feeling comfortable within our system, within the team, starting to get a good feel for how we play," observed Tavares. "He's very crafty with the puck. He has a really good shot, good release. He's competing extremely hard. He's winning a lot of 50-50 pucks. He's putting pressure on the opponent and that's creating time and space."

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After posting just six goals in 34 games last season, Duchene has rocketed out of the gate this year with nine goals in 15 games. 

"The relationship between [coach] Hynsie and I has really progressed," he explained. "The trust from him has been a lot higher this year. I know what he expects, and he knows what I need to help the team be successful. That has been the biggest thing. The minutes have been a lot more and it helps me get in a rhythm."

"We had some good conversations this summer and they were really honest," said Hynes. "He was really honest about some of the things that he felt in his game were good and some areas where he felt he needed more from me. There's also things in his game that needed to change and improve." 

Duchene is averaging 18:50 of ice time per game this season, which is up from 15:50 last season.  

"I really appreciate the way he's working without the puck," said Hynes. "He's extremely competitive. He's playing the game the right way and that allows you, as a coach, to really trust a player and give him minutes that are important minutes." 

Duchene has helped the underdog Predators surge up the Central Division standings. They enter tonight's game in third spot with 19 points. 

"We're having a lot of fun, more fun than we've had," Duchene said. "After the team went to the Cup in 2017, the expectations got a little heavy and we lost track of how hard it is to win in this League. We've re-routed our focus and there wasn't a lot of pressure coming into this year." 

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Projected Leafs lines for Tuesday's game: 

Ritchie - Matthews - Marner 

Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander 

Engvall - Kampf - Kase

Bunting - Spezza - Simmonds 
 

Rielly - Brodie 

Muzzin - Holl

Sandin - Dermott 
 

Campbell starts 

Woll