BUFFALO, N.Y. – Auston Matthews needed all of nine seconds to produce his first glorious chance against Carter Hutton. He’d put six shots on the Buffalo Sabres net by the second intermission, and even though one was a deft chop over Hutton’s right shoulder he wasn’t exactly satisfied.
"Lots of opportunities," said Matthews. "Hopefully just saving them for the regular season."
Given that we are in a process over results phase of the calendar, the Toronto Maple Leafs alpha dog still managed to stride out of KeyBank Center with a smile on his face. There were some clear steps forward in Saturday’s 3-2 victory, particularly when compared to Wednesday’s sloppy 4-1 win in Ottawa – the only other game Matthews dressed for this pre-season.
"I just felt like I had the puck on my stick more," he said. "I had a lot of good chances. … A little bit more patience, the timing was a little bit better. That’s kind of all you can ask for moving forward, is that it just continues to grow."
Mike Babcock has quietly tasked Matthews with an interesting assignment this fall. In a training camp where he’s been without his regular right-winger William Nylander because of a contract impasse, the coach is leaning more heavily on the big centre.
He’s been on the weaker of Toronto’s two teams early in exhibition and faced much stronger opposition by playing the two road games so far.
On Saturday, the Sabres played their starting goalie, five of their top six defencemen and likely nine forwards who will wear a sweater on opening night. Toronto countered with its top line – Matthews between Patrick Marleau and placeholder Tyler Ennis – and the fourth unit of Andreas Johnsson, Par Lindholm and Kasperi Kapanen.
Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner were the only defencemen sure to win an NHL spot here (at most one of Igor Ozhiganov, Justin Holl or Calle Rosen might grab another), while No. 1 goaltender Frederik Andersen played the first two periods.
Compare that with the team which has played the games where Matthews sat – the one that includes John Tavares and Mitch Marner hounding the offensive zone together and racking up goals, and Nazem Kadri’s line, and four members of a rebuilt top power-play unit.
It’s a sign of the load Matthews can carry. Entering his third NHL season, there is absolutely no situation the coach feels he must be protected from.
And after an opening week of exhibition where the Leafs reeled off four straight victories, Babcock intends to bring the band together by the time Montreal visits Scotiabank Arena on Monday night. That means the first game where he can roll out versions of the Matthews, Tavares and Kadri lines at 5-on-5 and the first time we’ll see those three men with Marner and Morgan Rielly working the puck around on a frightening PP1.
"Ideally, what I’ll do is I’ll have it divided into two groups," said Babcock. "More American Hockey League and NHL, and then get our team together at least two times going into the season so we can be up and running. We’ve got to get our power play and penalty kill together and we’ve got to have the people in the same game to do that."
It will be another step closer to seeing just how dangerous these Leafs might be. On Saturday in Buffalo, Matthews gave us a taste – just as Tavares and Marner did a night earlier. Look at where his chances came from on a night where Phil Housley fed him a steady diet of defencemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella, and a mixed bag of centres Patrik Berglund and Jack Eichel:
The highlight was the finish he put on a bouncing puck off the rush. It went quickly from Nikita Zaitsev to Marleau to Ennis, who feathered it into an area where very few players could score from while being checked closely. Matthews is one of the few.
"He seems to get open a lot," said Ennis. "Auston’s so fast and that was a nice goal. He just chipped that one under the bar – pretty special play."
The kind of play we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing from him on the regular. Matthews has averaged more than half a goal per game in his 144 regular-season appearances with the Leafs – .514 to be exact – and he’s scored in both exhibition games this week.
After a summer where he made some specific changes to his skating stride and drilled down on more skills work, he’s getting closer to regular-season form.
"He’s good. I mean he looks great out there," said Andersen.
"A lot better than the first game, honestly," said Matthews. "That’s the goal. You just want to get better every game, that’s kind of what the pre-season is for. I kind of felt more like myself."
Great news for the Leafs. Not so much for everybody else.