TORONTO — “Woooo!”
John Tavares is grinning wide and hollering in Auston Matthews’ ear as they embrace.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ other No. 1 centreman has just zipped a cross-ice pass on his tape, allowing Tavares to punch the exclamation point on a dizzying power-play passing sequence that criss-crossed the San Jose zone like a pinball destined for the jackpot.
Morgan Rielly to Mitch Marner to Matthews to Tavares to red lights and Hall & Oates and all of the hockey hugs. The ol’ east-west-east-west head swivel to set up the opening strike.
He’s back, kids.
And in defeating the Sharks 5-3 Wednesday at Scotiabank Arena for their sixth consecutive home victory, so is the Maple Leafs’ multi-line highlight show.
It was Matthews’ turn to score on the Leafs’ second power-play of the night — a high, clean snap-wrister short side from his office. And that scary-good PP1, which took a dip during Matthews’ 14-game absence, needed all of 62 seconds to score twice.
Matthews tipped in another goal late in the game.
This is how he returns: over-ready, champing at the bit, and firing on all cylinders. It’s a pattern.
In Matthews’ comeback game from his back injury last November, he torched Montreal twice. When his concussion symptoms faded last December, he scored once and added an assist at Madison Square Garden. And in late March in Nashville, when his right shoulder had healed? He scored then, too.
Six goals and eight points in four injury-return dates.
“I think just the excitement of being back out there with the guys,” Matthews said, trying to explain the awesome. “It sucks watching.”
Matthews wasn’t the only Leaf who had himself a night. Tavares scored twice, making that 17 on the year. Rookie Andreas Johnsson had himself a multi-point affair. Patrick Marleau sniped one on his old club on the power-play, giving him at least one goal against all 31 franchises.
And Marner registered three assists in an entertaining first period to grab sole possession of third in the NHL scoring race — none more thrilling than the one he orchestrated off the rush with 18 seconds left in the frame.
Busting his stick near the Leafs’ blue line, Marner snatched a fresh one on the fly from equipment manager Bobby Hastings and fed Tavares for a 3-on-2 tap-in at full flight, immediately pointing back to the bench to give credit where it was due.
“It seems like every night he gets you on the edge of your seat, even watching as a player,” Matthews said. “He’s been dominant.”
Despite arriving tired off Tuesday’s overtime loss in Buffalo and starting backup goalie Aaron Dell, the Sharks were hardly pushovers. The most trigger-happy club in the West outshot the home side, sustained zone pressure for prolonged stretches, and scored twice on their own power-play opportunities, with Tomas Hertl and Joe Pavelski hopping on the board.
But Frederik Andersen was steady again in securing his NHL-leading 14th victory. Ho hum. And Matthews, Marner and Tavares, as ever, will dominate the gifs and the gab.
Interestingly, Matthews skated with his third new combination of wingers this season, as coach Mike Babcock’s lines remain in flux during the William Nylander waiting game.
Kasperi Kapanen skated on Matthews’ right, while Johnsson assumed Marleau’s old spot to his left.
“They have so much skill up front, they transition so quickly and turn into offence,” Sharks centre Logan Couture said. “[Matthews] is a world-class player, one of the best players in our game.”
When the puck drops for the Maple Leafs’ next outing, Saturday in Minnesota, Nylander’s deadline will have passed.
Leafs Nation will know if there is more offensive talent arriving to pile on to the fun.
“I’m just getting my legs back under me,” Matthews said. “We’ve been playing really well lately, so just to be back in the lineup is very exciting.”