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Auston Matthews credits teammates for success

Maple Leafs center praises linemates Connor Brown, Zach Hyman for his strong season

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

NEWARK, N.J. -- In many ways, it's good to be Connor Brown.

For two years in the Ontario Hockey League, he got to play with Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters. Now, in his first full NHL season, the Toronto Maple Leafs rookie right wing is playing on a line with center Auston Matthews.

McDavid and Matthews are the past two No. 1 NHL draft picks, two of the brightest young faces of the League, were recently named to the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game, and are potential trophy winners at the end of this season.

"I just enjoy playing with guys like that because it's fun," Brown, 22, said after practice at Prudential Center on Thursday. "Auston makes me play better. Auston makes us play better."

There's a catch, though. A big one that Matthews will happily tell you all about.

Matthews arguably wouldn't help make the Maple Leafs play as well as they've played lately, good enough to climb into the Stanley Cup Playoff race, even pulling into a playoff position for a brief time last weekend, without the help of Brown and fellow rookie linemate Zach Hyman.

"They're two of the hardest working guys on the team," Matthews said.

Video: TOR@WSH: Matthews spins, sets up Komarov for PPG

Matthews and Hyman have been together since the start of the season. Brown initially played with them primarily on the road for defensive purposes, replacing William Nylander, who would play with Nazem Kadri and Leo Komarov. However, he's been a full-time member of the line for the past nine games and the results have been excellent.

Toronto is 6-2-1 in those nine games. Matthews, Brown and Hyman have combined for 12 goals and 29 points, including seven goals and 12 points for Matthews and five goals and nine points for Brown. Hyman has eight points, all assists.

The Maple Leafs, who haven't played since Saturday, visit the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Friday (7 p.m. ET; MSG, TSN4, NHL.TV).

"We enjoy playing with each other," Matthews said. "Over the last couple of weeks we've definitely gelled more and more and found each other, a bit more chemistry."

How? Why?

It starts with Hyman, arguably the Maple Leafs' most aggressive forechecker, winning the puck back in 50-50 battles.

"I think nine times out of 10, he's come away with the puck in the corners," Matthews said. "It's just knowing where he wants to throw the puck and trying to get open for him because you know he's coming out with it most of the time."

Ideally, Brown gets the puck from Hyman first, because he's the distributor and Matthews is the shooter. Brown has a great shot as well, but he defers to Matthews if he has the shot.

"He's a shooter, absolutely," Brown said. "We get him the puck in different ways. I'm a bit more of a passer and Zach goes and gets pucks, he's a hunter. A 2-on-1, you'd like to think Auston is shooting it because it's a tough shot to stop."

And where is Hyman in all of this?

"He gets to the netfront for those guys, takes the 'D' away," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.

Video: DET@TOR: Matthews tallies with blistering snap shot

Babcock said one reason he put Hyman on a line with Matthews goes back to what Pavel Datsyuk used to tell to him when he coached the Detroit Red Wings.

"Pavel Datsyuk always told me there wasn't enough puck to go around for three guys, so you want somebody to go get it back for you and he liked someone to get it back for him," Babcock said. "I've tried to use the same thing with Auston. Auston wants the puck and we need someone to get it to him."

Babcock knew Hyman could get the puck back because he watched him do that exact thing for Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin when they played together at the University of Michigan.

Babcock used to go to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to scout Larkin when he was coaching the Red Wings and Hyman also stood out.

"I saw him doing what he's doing for Auston for Larkin," Babcock said.

Added Hyman: "When you have a guy like Auston you just want to get him the puck. He's the guy who has the skillset that nobody else has."

Brown has a strong skillset too. Babcock credited him for his hockey sense and ability to distribute the puck to create chances just like he did with McDavid in Erie for two seasons. He had 128 points in the 2013-14 season and was named the OHL's most outstanding player.

Brown, though, started this season in a defensive role, on the fourth line, on the penalty kill. That he's been given the opportunity to showcase his offensive skills now shows the confidence Babcock has gained in him.

Brown is even starting to pick up some power play time too. He played 6:14 of Toronto's 11:03 of power play time in their 6-5 overtime loss at the Washington Capitals on Jan. 3. Matthews also played 6:14 on the power play.

"No question Brownie was a dominant, dominant player in the Ontario Hockey League, had a real good rookie year in the American Hockey League and now has taken it to the NHL," Babcock said. "The people that have been around him aren't surprised by what he's doing."

Meanwhile, Brown and Hyman remain two of Toronto's most reliable penalty killers on a shorthanded unit that is 83.6 percent this season, eighth in the NHL. Hyman leads Toronto's forwards with 2:56 of shorthanded ice time per game and Brown is at 2:16.

"They're drivers," Babcock said. "They set the work ethic for us every day."

And with the way they mesh with Matthews, there's reason to believe that their line should have staying power, that it will be a staple as the Maple Leafs evolve into a Stanley Cup contender.

"We're definitely moving in the right direction," Matthews said.

It's good to be them.

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