Maple Leafs survive stiffer test against defending champion Capitals

Auston Matthews scored a goal in his sixth straight game to start the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat Washington Capitals 4-2.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Best against best on a Saturday night.

A sense of giddy occasion was palpable in the U.S. capital city as the top two offensive juggernauts of this budding NHL season sent out their most dynamic young centremen and top scorers head-to-head for puck drop, a crisp Stanley Cup championship banner hanging in the rafters like a reminder and a promise.

The Toronto Maple LeafsAuston Matthews versus the Washington CapitalsEvgeny Kuznetsov. Should be fun.

It took all of 18 seconds after puck drop for Kuznetsov — the one with the 252-diamond ring — to lead a two-on-one rush towards the visitors’ end and set up brand-new linemate Chandler Stephenson for a tap-in and a wake-up call.

For Washington represents the first 2018 playoff team that high-flying Toronto has faced this season.

That distinction was evident in a 4-2 Maple Leafs victory that saw the defending champs control an edge in high-danger scoring chances and exert their weight, but also saw Toronto lean on opportunity, the hottest player in hockey, timely goaltending, and the world’s scariest power play to rescue a fourth consecutive win.

New guy Par Lindholm even scored his first NHL goal.

“Unreal,” the Swedish import said. “Just happiness runs through your mind.”

The perfect ending to a perfect 4-0 road trip.

“Some good team bonding, and obviously it showed,” said Josh Leivo, who potted the game-winner.

Let’s wheel back a bit.

Heading into Thursday’s game in Detroit against Mike Babcock’s former team, the coach dangled a carrot in front of his charges: Beat the Red Wings, and I’ll cancel Friday’s practice. A free day in D.C.

The motivation worked.

“We heard the news and got really excited. We wanted that win really badly,” Mitch Marner said. “I think everyone in here’s pretty recharged. You could see it today.”

Seven members of the young Maple Leafs — Matthews, Leivo, Marner, Frederik Andersen, Patrick Marleau, Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner — zipped around the streets of the U.S. capital on a well-earned sunny Friday afternoon off, riding motorized lime-green scooters past monuments and museums.

“They were unbelievable,” Marner beamed. “We got on scooters and rode around the city, just enjoyed it. At one point there were seven of us riding down the street beside a bus, taking over lanes. It was pretty funny.”

A sight to see in a sightseeing town.

“It was great, a really good time,” said Matthews. “At some you just gotta do what makes you happy and put yourself out there, have fun and not really care what other people think.”

Did they get recognized as hockey’s highest-scoring team?

“Not at all,” Marner smiled. “We looked like a scooter gang.”

Having a blast with their gleefully childish mode of transportation, the Leafs took in a matinee showing of Bad Times at the El Royale before their good times at Capital One Arena.

Matthews rated the neo-noir film a 6.5 out 10. We’d rate his confidence an 11.

Matthews screamed after slamming home the insurance goal with 99 seconds on the clock, bringing his streak of multi-point games to six and his goal total to 10. With an assist on Matthews’ strike, Rielly (3-10-13) set a franchise record for longest season-starting point streak by a defenceman.

Leading the league with 14 points, Matthews was asked, with a Hockey Night in Canada towel around his neck, if he’d ever had such a magical stretch, one where the puck seems to follow his stick like it is now.

“Yeah, I have,” he answered. Just not against competition like this.

The Caps, you may recall, have their fair share of skill and imagination, too. Increasingly, that well springs from Kuznetsov.

“He’s one of my favourite players to watch. The stuff he can do with the puck, not a lot of players can do,” Matthews said. “He’s not afraid to get creative and, in my mind, very underrated.”

Kuzentsov, too, had himself a two-point night, giving him nine in five games.

Under new head coach Todd Reirden, the 26-year-old Russian is increasingly being deployed in a shutdown role and now kills penalties.

But it’s Kuznetsov’s artistry in the O-zone that is ethereal.

His beautiful no-look, second-period snipe from an ultra-tight angle was punctuated with a flourishing, leg-kicking, hand-twirling celebration, much to the dismay of fun-haters everywhere.

“I looked for the pass, but then I don’t know what happened,” Kuznetsov said. “I decide to shoot, and I think that’s pretty lucky shot.”

Sure, luck:

Greatness recognizes greatness.

Kuznetsov, a Matthews fan, enjoyed the challenge of the match-up.

“He’s a great player,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s always nice, watching on TV those type of guys, but even when you play against them, you can learn a lot. I’m never shy to learn from other players.”

The two stars are on the same page when it comes to their work-hard, play-hard approach. They offer a refreshing dose of joyful individuality in a straight-faced sport.

“I was watching the movie a few days ago about the Brazilian soccer players,” Kuznetsov told The Washington Post this week.

“For them, futbol, the soccer game, that’s the biggest day in their year. They have fun, they enjoy, they dance, and they’re smiling every time. That’s what I’m trying to do, too. I try to have fun, and I try to enjoy every second on the ice. You never know when you’re going to be retired, right?”

Matthews — who was criticized by Don Cherry in the game’s first intermission for his ‘Do you hear that?’ goal celebration in Chicago — read Kuznetsov’s comments in that piece.

“I loved it. A lot of us sometimes, especially us young guys, stray away from that having fun, and we’re all still kids,” said Matthews, who delivered the insurance dagger with less than two minutes on the clock.

“That’s why we’ve played the game as long as we have and why the NHL, obviously, is a goal for all of us to accomplish as young kids — because of how much fun we’re having on the ice. I think that’s something we tend to stray away from at times, but I really like what he said in that article.”

The Maple Leafs’ fun wagon returns to home to Toronto, where they’ll try to make it five in a row versus Los Angeles Monday.

As for Sunday? The boys earned another day off to play.

Scooter gangs in your rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear.

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