TORONTO — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have a tradition of passing the puck back at forth at the end of every pre-game warmup.
The disc often looks like it’s on a string as the two stars play pitch and catch — always the last two Maple Leafs off the ice.
The duo has never been more in sync than they are in 2021, and that was once again on full display Saturday.
Matthews had a hat trick and an assist to increase his league-leading goal total to 31, Marner scored one and set up all three of his friend and linemate’s efforts, and Toronto defeated the Ottawa Senators 6-5 for a season-high sixth straight win.
The 23 year olds both sit with 52 points through 41 games to become the first Leafs to crack the half-century mark in that span since the 1942-43 campaign.
“Chemistry-wise, I think we’re at an all-time high,” Marner said. “We’re moving the puck very well, we’re talking to each other constantly on the ice and on the bench about what we’re seeing.
“(We) have the same offensive awareness of where each other’s going to be.”
Matthews, who now has five straight 30-goal seasons to start his career, recorded just his third hat trick since being picked first overall in 2016.
“It felt really good,” Matthews, who’s also scored two goals on 35 separate occasions, said with a grin.
Matthews, Marner and Alex Galchenyuk — promoted to the top line with William Nylander out due to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol and Zach Hyman bumped down to the second trio — combined for 10 points against Ottawa.
“Those two guys were making plays all night,” Matthews added. “I was fortunate to be on the receiving end of a couple nice passes.”
Jack Campbell made 27 saves to set an NHL record with his 11th consecutive victory to start a season for Toronto (28-10-3), which improved to 5-2-1 against its provincial rival in the pandemic-shortened campaign.
Currently the Leafs’ No. 1 crease option with Frederik Andersen still nursing a lower-body injury, Campbell set another franchise record Wednesday by picking up a 10th straight win.
“I definitely owe the boys a nice Red Lobster dinner, that’s for sure,” he said of his performance versus the Senators. “Definitely not what I expect out of myself, but thankfully we have a great team.
“They carried me tonight.”
Hyman and Ilya Mikheyev, both with a goal and an assist, provided the rest of the offence for the North Division leaders, who are 9-0-1 over their last 10.
Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson and Connor Brown, with a goal and an assist each, Alex Formenton and Josh Norris replied for Ottawa (13-25-4). Anton Forsberg stopped 32 shots for the Senators, who have lost four straight and are 1-5-1 over their last seven.
“A lot of great plays and a lot of learning lessons,” Ottawa head coach D.J. Smith said. “We were careless with the puck against their top line.”
Brown set a franchise record by scoring in a seventh straight game — breaking a tie with Batherson, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Bob Kudelski — against the team that drafted him in 2012 and traded him away in 2019.
“It means a lot,” Brown said. “I’ve grinded pretty hard in my career. There’s been times when I’ve been a checker.
“I’ve had a really good (offensive) opportunity here.”
Matthews opened the scoring at 8:52 of the first period on a sequence that started with Senators defenceman Erik Gudbranson turning the puck over. Marner raced the other way and dropped a pass to Matthews, who ripped a shot past Forsberg’s blocker.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe’s decision to go right back to his top line on the next shift then paid immediate dividends.
Galchenyuk, who played sparingly with Ottawa earlier this season before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes and subsequently flipped to Toronto, started the play that ended with two more quick passes and Matthews’ 30th goal just 39 seconds later.
“Auston shot the puck probably as good as he has in, I don’t know, months,” said Keefe, referencing the centre’s nagging wrist injury.
The Senators made it 2-1 at 12:02 of the second when Batherson cleaned up Stutzle’s shot off the post for his 13th.
The Leafs got their first power play, but Formenton stole the puck from Morgan Rielly and raced in on a breakaway to score his third at 13:49.
Ottawa added its third goal in 4:23 to take the lead when Stutzle, who hadn’t scored in 13 games, wired a shot upstairs on Campbell to make it 3-2.
“Obviously we gave up too much,” Keefe said. “That Ottawa team, to me, is playing as well as anyone in the division. They’re not getting nearly enough credit for it. The start they had to the season dug them a really large hole.
“They save their best for us, perhaps, but in terms of playing against them, it’s just as hard as anybody else.”
The goal deluge continued 27 seconds later when Marner popped his 14th home off a mad scramble in Forsberg’s crease after Stutzle a turnover.
“It was great to get (a goal),” said Stutzle, the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft. “But in the end I play to win.”
The Leafs kept coming and restored their advantage with under a minute to go in the period when Senators blue-liner Thomas Chabot also coughed the puck up to Marner, who again fed Matthews.
“I don’t know if my vocabulary’s big enough to describe it,” Campbell said of the Matthews-Marner connection. “It’s such a treat to watch. It’s special.
“What they bring to this team is invaluable.”
Matthews had a memorable four-goal NHL debut against Ottawa in 2016, and has now scored 22 times — including nine this season alone — and added 16 assists in 23 career games against the Senators.
The Leafs made it 5-3 at 4:44 of the third when Mikheyev scored his sixth, but Brown replied with his 13th to set the Ottawa franchise mark just over three minutes later.
Hyman fired his 14th into an empty net to make it 6-4 before Norris buried his 11th on a late power play for the visitors.
“A nice two points,” Matthews said. “But not the prettiest win.”