SIMMONS: Time for dynamic duo of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to take the next step for Maple Leafs

Mats Sundin led the Maple Leafs in scoring 12 different times, a record that may never be equalled or broken.

What also may never be broken: Nine different Leafs players finished second behind Sundin in those 12 years — Steve Thomas, Doug Gilmour and Bryan McCabe twice each; Mike Johnson, Nik Antropov, Gary Roberts, Tomas Kaberle, Dave Andreychuk and Darcy Tucker are the other six.

Which is nothing at all like today or tomorrow, where everything around the Leafs begins and ends with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The Maple Leafs’ M&Ms. One doesn’t seem to take a step on ice without the other.

Matthews the goal-scorer, Marner the quick, creative set-up man. And, sometimes, the opposite. Fitting together like few Leafs, past or present — or few NHL players, to be honest — have ever fit together.

There are just a few days left in this shortened season, but Matthews is all but certain to lead the NHL in goal-scoring, at a pace never before seen in Toronto. Marner is fourth in the league in points scored, one ahead of Matthews.

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“You watch those two and you’re realizing you’re seeing something special,” said former Leafs captain Darryl Sittler, who understands a little bit about what it is like to mesh with a linemate.

“The more goals they score, the more confidence you can see them playing with,” Sittler added. “Auston can score from anywhere. He has that ability. And, sometimes, you need those perfect passes, and Mitch can make those. The strengths play off each other, match each other perfectly. That doesn’t happen often.”

Leafs greats Darryl Sittler (left) and Lanny McDonald leave the Maple Leaf Gardens ice at the end of a game in the 1978-79 season. SUN FILES
Leafs greats Darryl Sittler (left) and Lanny McDonald leave the Maple Leaf Gardens ice at the end of a game in the 1978-79 season. SUN FILES

It happened for Sittler for the four seasons he played with Lanny McDonald. He may have led the Leafs in scoring nine different times, but the years he played alongside McDonald, one Hall of Famer with another, were the most memorable.

In each of those four seasons — 1976 to 1979 — he and McDonald finished one-two in Leafs scoring, the two players almost connected as one, so different from the Sundin years. It’s the way in which Marner and Matthews will finish one-two in Toronto scoring this season, and likely for many years after this.

For the past 40 years or so, the NHL has been about one-two combinations at the top of its rung of championship teams and those who played for titles but didn’t win.

Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy led the New York Islanders to four Stanley Cup wins and, almost as impressively, 19 straight playoff series wins.

After that came Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri. It didn’t always matter who played left wing in Edmonton. Gretzky won four titles with the Oilers before moving on.

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Legendary head coach Scotty Bowman has said on more than one occasion that he likes to keep two-thirds of a line together and switch the third part around. Al Arbour did much the same with the championship Islanders.

Most recently, the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, played that two-man beat in Vancouver, with one of them leading the Canucks in scoring for 10 consecutive seasons and the other one finishing second.

“They say twins talk to each other without really speaking,” said Trottier in a telephone conversation. “It’s telepathy or something. It’s unique. For them, it worked. They always knew where the other one was. It was almost magic. They did things that seemed impossible.”

Wayne Gretzky gets a pat on the head from linemate Jari Kurri, likely after another unbelievable pass set up the Finn for a goal. POSTMEDIA FILES
Wayne Gretzky gets a pat on the head from linemate Jari Kurri, likely after another unbelievable pass set up the Finn for a goal. POSTMEDIA FILES

The way Trottier and Bossy did on Long Island. The way Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl operate currently in Edmonton. McDavid is running away with the NHL scoring championship and looks certain to win the Hart Trophy. Last year, Draisaitl won the scoring crown and the MVP. That kind of back-and-forth has rarely happened before.

But, in Toronto, something similar is happening with Matthews and Marner and maybe something like that in Colorado as well with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen.

Six players from three teams are all top-eight in the NHL in scoring as of Tuesday.

Trottier can’t completely explain how it was he and Bossy became so exceptional with the Islanders. In the four Stanley Cup runs, Trottier and Bossy combined for the breathtaking total of 218 playoff points.

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“He had a hunger. I had a hunger. And we ran with that,” said Trottier. “We worked on it. He had a scoring knack. I had a playmaking knack and he was a hell of a playmaker. He’s a special hockey player and I hope he feels the same way about me.

“But this isn’t something that just happened. We had to work at it. We had high expectations. We wanted to win. It didn’t work 100 perA cent of the time, but it was pretty magical.”

In the four playoff seasons Sittler and McDonald played together, they wound up with 90 points in 38 games, Sittler with 53 himself.

Bryan Trottier (centre) holds up the Stanley Cup while flanked by linemate Mike Bossy (right) and defenceman Denis Potvin during the Islanders’ heyday. POSTMEDIA NETWORK FILES
Bryan Trottier (centre) holds up the Stanley Cup while flanked by linemate Mike Bossy (right) and defenceman Denis Potvin during the Islanders’ heyday. POSTMEDIA NETWORK FILES

“We would try to measure ourselves against the best,” said Sittler. “If we were playing the Islanders, that was playing against Trottier and Bossy and Denis Potvin. If it was Philadelphia, I’d be going head-to-head against Bobby Clarke. It’s playoffs and you have to bring your game to another level. When I played against Clarke, I thought I was going against the best. I had to be better than that. Same with Trottier, you had to be of a certain mentality.”

Matthews and Marner have had remarkable young careers to date, this being their greatest season. What they haven’t done yet, that Sittler and McDonald did, that Bossy and Trottier did, that Gretzky and Kurri did, is flex their playoff muscles.

“They’re ready for that,” said Sittler, now 70 years old. “You can see it. They’re not resting on their laurels. They want more out of themselves.

“One thing I’ve always loved about Jonathan Toews: Great players make their reputations in big games. And he wasn’t the most talented guy, but he did that. You can see that Matthews and Marner are maturing. You can see by watching their game. They’re a year older. They want more from themselves. They push themselves harder.”

And now it’s time.

Time to take the next step.

It’s almost playoff time.

ssimmons@postmedia.com

twitter.com/simmonssteve

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