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Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs killing Canucks’ confidence

TORONTO – Perhaps even more than boosting their own stock during back-to-back routs, the Toronto Maple Leafs are crashing the Vancouver Canucks‘.

Prior to arriving this week in the East, land of the 4 p.m. PT start, the Canucks were riding a four-game win streak. That spike of good fortune now feels like GameStop mirage, propped up by defeating the rebuilding Senators and abruptly pounded down to earth, first by Tyler Toffoli’s Canadiens and now even more fiercely by a Maple Leafs squad that has learned to hammer the gas pedal.

In thumping Vancouver 5-1 Saturday night and jacking the two-game aggregate score to 12-4, the Leafs (9-2-1) reclaimed top spot in the NHL, padded their individual stat lines, and rebooted the #FireBenning hashtag into trending status.

The Canucks lost their backbone in Jacob Markstrom, chunks of heart in Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher, and some hands in Toffoli. The Maple Leafs are now going to work on their soul.

“We haven’t probably played a team that’s as fast and skilled as Toronto,” said Vancouver coach Travis Green, now tasked with injecting life into a leaky group that has showed no push-back in this city. “They are a fast, very skilled team, and you’ve got to have your skating legs to play against that team.”

Saturday, Green tried reuniting the Lotto Line. He switched goalies. He even gave Loui Eriksson his first taste of action since August, back when the Canucks looked like the best and hungriest squad our country had to offer.

No spark. More sputter.

Blink and a four-game win streak has given way to a four-game losing skid.

The Canucks waited nine minutes to even register a shot on net, and the Leafs dominated from puck drop to buzzer, generating 15 high-danger scoring chances at even-strength to Vancouver’s five.

Sheldon Keefe has challenged his players to widen the standings gap and pitted his two Manny Malhotra–guided power-play units in a friendly internal contest to see who could light the lamp more often.

By the time Toronto had scored another power-play goal (its 15th in 12 games), and Mitch Marner had piled another three assists (already his seventh multi-point outing in 2021) and Auston Matthews had extended his goal streak to seven games and running, Chris Johnston was discussing the trade potential of healthy scratch Jake Virtanen during Hockey Night in Canada’s intermission.

When the 2020 version of the Maple Leafs lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the post-season bubble, Matthews lamented the roster’s lack of “killer instinct.”

Somewhere between signing Wayne Simmonds and Jason Spezza popping off with a hat trick, that instinct has been uncovered.

Toronto is now 5-0-0 when leading after one period. The Leafs have yet to lose a one-goal game in regulation. They’re breaking out of their own zone with purpose and attacking the net-front with venom.

Over the past 72 hours, Canucks defenders have been getting walked more often than the pet dog in a pandemic.

Killer instinct? Toronto is dismantling a team in bewilderment, to the point where we’re not sure how much credit the Leafs really deserve here because, at the moment, the Canucks seem incapable of summoning a measuring-stick effort.

“We’re a disconnected group right now, and it’s showing,” admitted Braden Holtby, post-loss.

Conceded Green: “I don’t think we’re a team that’s built to chase teams from behind.”

Added Brock Boeser: “We know the way we have been playing is unacceptable. We all need to work together and communicate.”

Unlike Vancouver, Toronto is being led by its best (and, yes, highest-paid) players.

Each member of the Core Four — Matthews, Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares — is humming along at a point-per-game pace or better in the goal-happy North.

Matthews, in particular, has juiced up his wow factor, with consecutive two-goal efforts during which his coach believes he could’ve scored four or five in the Six.

“He’s really hungry,” says Frederik Andersen. “He demands the puck, and he shoots with purpose every time. He has so many different kinds of shots that it’s really tough to prepare or scout him. He picks his spots and has really good vision.”

Keefe says his top centre still has the power to surprise the bench.

“That just speaks to his ability and how special he is. That goal tonight, it happened so fast that I don’t think anybody on the ice was really ready for it. Just with how quickly he went around a defender [Jalen Chatfield] to put it in the net, it was impressive,” Keefe said. “All season I really think he’s been very good for us, but these last two games he’s really had jump.”

If anything, Keefe wonders, he may have disrupted Matthews’ flow against Vancouver by rolling all four lines and keeping his 10-goal man on the bench for some O-zone starts. A luxury only long leads can provide.

“He was really feeling it. That’s really good for us,” Keefe said, “and good for him that he’s having that confidence. He was doing it in all zones for us to start the season, and now he’s starting to get the consistent rewards around the net.”

Great for the stat line. And horrible for the Canucks, who still have 60 more minutes of this to endure before they can fly home.

Puck drop on Black Monday is scheduled for 4 p.m. Pacific.

INJURY NOTE: Simmonds, who scored twice in Saturday’s victory, was struck by a puck in the third period. The winger left the game after getting attention on his hand by a trainer and needed further evaluation. An update on Simmonds’ condition is expected Monday, when the Leafs return to practice.

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