“I expect him to be good.” — Mike Babcock on Auston Matthews
NEW YORK – Merry Christmas, Toronto.
After sitting six games to nurse a concussion and watching his friends lose most of them, Auston Matthews returned live from New York on a Saturday night and looked every bit a prime-time player in the Maple Leafs’ raucous 3-2 victory over the Rangers.
Mike Babcock says the comfort level of his best player didn’t factor into placing Zach Hyman and William Nylander on Matthews’ wings during the No. 1 centre’s first action in two weeks.
“Willie is a much better winger than he is at centre at this point in his career, and when you get [Matthews] back we are a much deeper team,” the coach said. “All we’re trying to do is win a game.”
Mission accomplished. The sleigh has landed.
In a whistling and whistle-filled first period that saw seven minor penalties and limited 5-on-5 action, it was the Matthews-Nylander duo stirring up high-danger scoring chances aplenty on a sharp-looking Henrik Lundqvist.
Twice Nylander set up Matthews with quality attempts. But it was Matthews, circling behind the King’s net, who put one on a platter for Nylander. The line-juggled sophomore slammed a one-kneed one-timer to open the scoring. This after consecutive Leafs shifts of sustained pressure and an icing call left the Rangers’ legs heavy.
It felt like old times for the kids.
“Willie and Hyms got me involved pretty early. I got the feel back with the puck,” said Matthews, who leads the club with 28 points despite missing 10 games. “Your confidence kinda takes off from there.
“We come back together, and hopefully it can stay that way. We want to play well and create offence and just do what we do.”
What they do, as exhibited on Festivus in New York City, involves an intoxicating blend of speed, creativity, vision and accuracy. Puck control and puck retrieval and, when they’re humming, puck burial.
That top-line magic is why so many Leafs followers have aired grievance over Nylander’s sporadic bottom-six deployment away from the cornerstone pivot.
“[Matthews] is a player,” says Rangers shutdown defenceman Ryan McDonagh, “that makes the players around him better. So you don’t want to be fully focused on him because he can find guys around him with a little open time and space.”
Ron Hainsey unleashed a power-play point blast just 50 seconds into the second frame to double the visitors’ advantage, but Rangers winger Jimmy Vesey struck right back for New York.
Hard on the forecheck, Vesey swiped Frederik Andersen’s softly handled puck behind the Leafs goal and outraced the netminder on a wraparound.
Then it was back to the Matthews and Nylander Show. Some gritty corner work by Nylander secured a puck for Hyman, who zipped a cross-ice pass to Matthews. Inexplicably all alone in Lundqvist’s blue paint, Matthews dipsy-doodled the all-world goaltender for his 14th of the season.
It would prove to be the winner.
“It felt like he was all over us,” Lundqvist said. “Obviously, he’s the wrong guy to face one-on-one in front of the net.
“They were really good at finding chances on the inside. That’s challenging for a goalie and our D when they come on the inside and they make a lot of skilled moves.”
Back and forth, north and south, the sides swapped chances like Secret Santa gifts. What we saw were 36 men who knew they’re in for four days of turkey and nog, relying on their excellent goalies to clean their messes.
Toronto and New York entered a busy NHL night surrendering the third- and fourth-most shots per game, respectively, and delivered on that high-event promise. Saturday at the Garden gave fans some sloppy, speedy, shot-happy spirit to ring in the holidays: 69 pucks on net, many more off posts or just wide. Thrice slow-motion replay was necessary to make sure more shots didn’t count.
J.T. Miller cut the Leafs’ lead to one in the third period when he beat Andersen five-hole. Michael Grabner zipped a laser over Andersen’s shoulder the 44 seconds later, but Babcock successfully challenged the play and it was overruled as offside.
Toronto hung on, if barely.
“We don’t really wanna go back and forth like that,” Matthews said. “We lucked out with that offside on their third goal.”
Lundqvist stoned both Matthews and Patrick Marleau on third-period breakaways to keep the Blueshirts battling until the final horn, which didn’t sound until Matthews blocked two of his team-high four shots in a scrappy preservation sequence.
While some observers raised an eyebrow over the decision to dress Matthews in lieu of an extra five days’ rest and the tidy narrative of a triumphant return in Arizona against his boyhood favourite Coyotes on Dec. 28, the Leafs suddenly need the standings bump.
With Toronto (45 points) having dropped four of its past five heading into New York, and with the surging Bruins (43 points) winning four straight with three games in hand, Boston is nipping at the Leafs’ heals.
“[Matthews] looked like his usual self. He hasn’t skipped a beat. He worked hard to get healthy,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “He played outstanding.”
It was a case of Toronto’s best players being its best players.
Andersen outduelled Lundqvist for the second time this season. Mitch Marner extended his point streak to six in three games. Rielly tacked another pair of assists onto what’s shaping to be the best year of his career. Nazem Kadri was drawing penalties, ticking off the opposition and, with a game-high six shots, coming agonizingly close to snapping his 10-game goal drought.
And, sure enough, the Leafs’ top wingers, Hyman and Nylander, were wise enough to follow their star.
On the eve of Christmas Eve, they all came bearing gifts.