TORONTO — When the heat has been turned up highest in games between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs these last few years, Auston Matthews hasn’t often been thrown into the frying pan.
That’s to be expected given that Matthews has until now been playing on an entry-level contract while Boston’s been able to roll out a Selke Trophy finalist for eight seasons running.
Teams tend to protect their young.
But Matthews is no longer a kid just learning the league and he’s bound to be counted on more heavily while teammate John Tavares recovers from a broken finger. That injury arrived just as Toronto prepared to face Boston twice in a four-day span, all but guaranteeing that Matthews will be given a good portion of the Patrice Bergeron file in Saturday’s game at Scotiabank Arena and Tuesday’s visit to TD Garden.
Mike Babcock has little choice but to fight fire with fire.
Sure, we’ll see Frederik Gauthier sent out to take some defensive zone draws against Bergeron, who has won more than 58 per cent of the faceoffs he’s taken during a 16-year NHL career. But Gauthier won’t suddenly be tasked with playing 18 minutes per night. And so with lines centred by Alex Kerfoot and Jason Spezza as Babcock’s only other options, there is bound to be several instances where the Matthews group gets the Bergeron matchup.
It’s a shame there’ll only be one puck.
They are two of the most dominant lines league-wide in these early days of the season — with Andreas Johnsson-Matthews-William Nylander controlling 62.8 per cent of even-strength shot attempts and Brad Marchand-Bergeron-David Pastrnak humming along at 56.1.
The prospect of a big matchup left Matthews discussing the importance of defensive awareness and positioning following Friday’s practice. He has spoken previously about wanting to take on more responsibility in his own zone and won’t face many bigger challenges than the one Boston can throw at him.
“They can obviously move it around and they’re really solid — probably the top line in the league,” said Matthews. “So we’ve got to be careful out there and not turn the puck over and take care of it.”
He and Bergeron have only shared the ice for 62 minutes and 40 seconds of even-strength play throughout their NHL careers. That’s surprisingly low for top centres on teams in the same division who have faced one another in consecutive seven-game playoff series.
It may not offer us enough of a sample to draw definitive conclusions, but Matthews should feel good about the fact he’s held his own with a 48-per cent Corsi and a slight edge in shots on goal for the Leafs (37-35) in those head-to-head minutes with a future Hall of Famer.
“He doesn’t really make too many mistakes,” said Matthews of what he’s learned about Bergeron. “He’s just really solid in every area of his game. He can score, he can defend, he can play those tough minutes, penalty kill, PP. It’s always tough going against a guy like that, especially in the faceoff dot.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re bearing down and making sure you know where he’s at at all times.”
Hockey is not a sport that allows us much opportunity to trumpet mano-a-mano battles. It’s a free-flowing game, with on-the-fly shift changes and a certain degree of controlled chaos.
Babcock indicated that Matthews’s usage against Boston will largely be determined by game flow. Both he and Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy like to start their top offensive weapons in the offensive zone as much as possible — with Matthews (76.9 per cent) and Bergeron (74.2 per cent) each currently seeing more O-zone starts than at any other point during their NHL careers — so that will keep them from being in a hard-match situation.
For Babcock, it’s about trying to find an edge. He doesn’t want his best scorers starting every shift under duress. But he also doesn’t want to watch his depth guys chase the Perfection Line around in circles all night.
“We’d like to play really good players against real good players because they have to worry about playing defence,” said Babcock.
It was telling that the only line that remained untouched following the Tavares injury was the Johnsson-Matthews-Nylander trio. They have been by far the most dangerous for Toronto all season, generating 62.6 per cent of the expected goals when on the ice.
At some point in this mini-series with Boston, the Leafs coach will want to see if they can play downstream against a group as dynamic as Bergeron’s line. The best players tend to thrive when challenged against the best, and Tavares said his best piece of advice for playing the Bruins big boys is trying to take it to them.
“I know for myself, obviously you’re aware of who you’re playing against and whatnot, but at the same time you want to establish your own game and make them have to play on your terms,” he said. “Obviously [Bergeron’s] a very responsible, very talented , thinks the game very well.
“So I think it’s just to bring your best and go out there and compete.”
Matthews may finally get that chance.