TORONTO – Morgan Rielly was the first Maple Leaf to stare the future in his face.
As Toronto’s only two members selected to play for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, Rielly began skating with Auston Matthews – the much-hyped first-overall draft pick – back in August.
“It took about two minutes, and you’re like, ‘This guy’s for real,’” the defenceman recalled Sunday, eyes wide at the memory.
Because Leafs camp had yet to open, teammates would ask Rielly for a scouting report.
“How good is he?” they wondered.
“He can play the game,” Rielly assured.
“Do you think he’s going to be our best player?”
Matthews was the Maple Leafs’ best player in Game 1, when he hit ’em with the four; in Game 36, when he smeared on eye black then blacked out as the Centennial Classic overtime hero; and in the ultimate game of this shiny, happy, house-money season.
Matthews scored in each of the Maple Leafs’ final four playoff games. And he was the only one in blue to solve Vezina finalist Braden Holtby in the last two, a pair of 2-1 OT games the better team won.
Here’s your weekly reminder that Matthews is 19 years old.
As tightly wrought as this series was entering the third period of Sunday’s Game 6 with the score 0-0, truth was, the Leafs hadn’t grabbed a lead since way back in Game 2.
Matthews was a beast all night, digging pucks, fighting through checks, breaking up plays in the D-zone, and setting up linemate Zach Hyman for a glorious chance.
“It’s exciting to see where he’s going to go with this.”
Naturally, Matthews would be the one to snap the Air Canada Centre’s nervous tension with one farewell highlight that will loop in the minds of Leafs fans as they count the days till October.
Rielly fired one into the Caps’ zone that puck-lucked off the right-corner stanchion and took a 90-degree hairpin turn toward the slot.
In comes Matthews, top speed. He scoops and whips a rolling puck top right corner in one fluid motion with lacrosse-like finesse.
“Lucky bounce,” Alex Ovechkin said. “Obviously, when the puck goes to a player like Matthews, he’s dangerous and he put it in.”
The steel the puck nicked was affixed directly above a boards advertisement for peanuts that screamed: “GO NUTS!”
Leafs Nation did just that, the 19,740 inside and the millions out. One in Maple Leaf Square held high a perfect sign reading “BEL34F.”
“If you’re a good player and you like winning, this is the best place you could ever play,” coach Mike Babcock said in the wake of defeat.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s fantastic.”
Some have been waiting decades with varying degrees of patience for this – a likable, talented, young group with aspirations and confidence and hope and a legit superstar. Others hopped aboard in the past two weeks, captivated by the five OTs and resilience and possibility.
“It’s got control of the whole hockey world. Everybody wants to watch the Toronto-Wash series. It’s overshadowed the others,” Winnipeg Jets star Mark Scheifele told us before Game 6.
Scheifele plays in the West. A diehard Red Wings fan as a kid, all his greatest road-hockey goals were scored against the Leafs.
“Seeing Matthews and Rielly do as well as they are, it’s exciting,” Scheifele said. “A young team is showing what they can be after being last in the league. It’s really cool to see.”
The only player you could argue was cooler to see on elimination eve than Awesome Matthews was another new addition last summer: Frederik Andersen.
“Outstanding,” Babcock said, drawing out the compliment. “That’s an important building block for our team. I thought we did a great job last summer to get us a goalie that we can call a franchise goalie.”
Relentless, the Capitals knocked two second-effort pucks by Andersen, but only after he denied grade-A chance after grade-A chance by Washington’s best shooters.
How great was the Dane? The Leafs faithful gave him a third standing ovation and encouragingly chanted “Fred-dy! Fred-dy!” after he allowed the series-ender to Marcus Johansson.
“From the mental side of it, it’s been a huge improvement, just being able to handle this kind of market,” Andersen whispered, even quieter than normal, after the loss.
“Hockey is by far the biggest thing here, and everyone on the team enjoys it so much.”
The Capitals move onward, and deservedly so. As Ovechkin and Matthews passed each other in the handshake queue, the face of the future looked sapped, ran raw from the gutting of the present.
But as the Maple Leafs – every last one of them – glided to centre ice and saluted the fan base, you could wonder if the roles, the moods of these teams will soon reverse.
“It’s not the best feeling, but I think when you look around the locker room after the game, just sitting here, I think we gave it our all. I think we left it all out on the ice,” said Matthews.
“I think we have a bright future.”