“We’ll do our best to shut them down tonight,” Victor Hedman vowed Monday, before his Tampa Bay Lightning came up just a tad short in what both Eastern Conference powers categorized as a measuring-stick game.
“[Matthews] is a dynamic goal-scorer. Very shifty. He’s a big guy who’s strong on the puck, an unbelievable talent. That first line with him and William is a dynamic duo, and they’ve got [Zach] Hyman who’s a big body who goes into the corner to get the puck for them. Big first line that’s done some damage.”
Despite getting outshot and out-chanced by Tampa, it was the Leafs who out-damaged their opponents in a 4-3 thriller that could’ve gone either way.
“I thought it was anyone’s game,” lamented Steven Stamkos. “Two skilled teams that can put the puck in the net and, tonight, don’t need a lot of chances to do it. They can play a game where one team makes a mistake and the other team pounces.”
Super sophomores Matthews and Nylander — who rank one-two in Leafs scoring and game-winners — were the pouncers Stamkos was referring to.
Each registered three points in orchestrating Toronto’s early 3-0 lead. Matthews won an offensive-zone draw back to Jake Gardiner and popped open long enough to get the puck back and set up Nylander for a one-kneed one-timer from the right circle that zinged by Andrei Vasilevskiy’s short side in Period 1.
It was Matthews, again, winning a puck battle and springing Nylander for a partial breakaway from the defensive zone early in the second, and Nylander again beat the Vezina frontrunner on his blocker side. The pair then combined to orchestrate a Jake Gardiner strike. Tampa would crawl back but never seize the lead.
“When we break out fast and just play fast, we don’t let them set up. We’re able to get the puck and control it a bit more,” Matthews said. “I thought we skated really well and put pressure on their D and didn’t give their good players too much time and space.”
On the whole, the Leafs’ end bore the brunt of the action, but not when Matthews and Nylander were on the ice. They ranked one-two in possession with 59% and 56% Corsi marks, respectively.
More impressive, this puck-hoarding is coming against the opposition’s top six, as coach Mike Babcock isn’t shying away from giving the Matthews line the hard assignments previously reserved for Nazem Kadri’s shutdown line. Babcock threw Matthews against Stamkos in this one.
“We felt either group could do it, and it gave better flow off the bench,” the coach explained.
The lone blemish on the Leafs’ current 8-1 stretch — the best hockey they’ve played all season — came two Saturdays ago in Boston, where Matthews’ line was essentially owned by Patrice Bergeron’s unit. Don’t think that didn’t fuel the kid.
“He usually bounces right back,” Kadri said.
Over the past nine outings — the days of the optimal forward lines — Matthews has 11 points. Nylander has 12.
“We’ve found a rhythm, and this is what we want to stick to in the future,” Nylander said.
As efficient with his blade as he is with his words, the 21-year-old only needed two shots to score twice.
That The Matty and Willy Show clicks so well and can flow both ways makes us wonder why the stars were ever separated, or if they will be again. Both forwards can set ’em up and knock ’em down — for all his sniping prowess, Nylander has 17 more assists than he does goals.
Does Babcock eventually tear them apart in an effort to mould Nylander into the centre he’ll likely lose in Tyler Bozak?
That’s a question for another season.
For now, Leafs fans can enjoy the highlights, retweet the gifs, and Tampa can watch more tape.
“They have a lot of speed, got some good breaks and made some nice plays. They have good speed under their feet and can score goals. We have to do a better job of eliminating that,” said Hedman.
“Those two guys are two [of the tops] in this league, so next time we play them, we have to make sure we shut them down better.”
On the surface, pouring in three points while knocking off the NHL’s leaders with their defence at full health is no big deal to Matthews. But you have to imagine he relished this one after his frustration in Boston.
“It’s just another win. We expect to win every night, doesn’t matter who you play,” Matthews said.
“When you play the best team in the league, you’ve got to bring your A-game.”