The two young American stars, both products of the U.S. national team development program, went at it head-to-head on Tuesday night in Western New York, both scoring two goals, both making it clear that neither they nor their abundantly talented young teams intend to wait their turn to become dominant forces in a rapidly changing NHL.
While clubs like Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and even Pittsburgh retreat from the upper echelons of the league, with their stars either no longer the forces they once were or no longer surrounded with enough talent to support them, teams like Toronto, Buffalo and Colorado are elbowing their way up the NHL ladder.
The Leafs and Sabres have both had splendid starts to their 2018-19, with Buffalo winning 10 straight games at one point and the Leafs off to their best start in more than eight decades. It was Toronto that emerged with the 4-3 overtime win on Tuesday night, with Matthews potting a spectacular winning goal after Eichel had almost singlehandedly willed his team out of a third-period deficit and into the lead.
With KeyBank Centre almost equally divided between Leafs and Sabres supporters, or even slightly weighted towards the visiting team, the game delivered much of the speed and skill many had been looking forward to, if not the bang, crash and fisticuffs that once typified collisions between the two clubs.
For the Leafs it was a 20th victory in 29 games, and an 11th win in 14 road games, something no Leafs team has ever accomplished. Matthews, after watching Eichel’s two goals turn a 2-1 Buffalo deficit in to a 3-2 lead, scored his 15th goal in 14 games on a manoeuvre few players in the world could manage.
With less than 10 seconds left in a conservatively played overtime, the Leafs gained control and charged down the ice. Kasperi Kapanen dropped a pass to Matthews, and with Sabres winger Evan Rodrigues in front of him, the 21-year-old centre pulled the puck into his skates and then snapped a wrist shot that soared past the catching glove of Linus Ullmark with three seconds left in the game.
“I didn’t know how much time I had left, but I was able to pull it back and pick a corner,” said Matthews, who has five goals in three games since returning from a shoulder injury.
That was his explanation, but it really wasn’t one. Who, exactly, can precisely explain the ability of Matthews to produce such power and accuracy within such a small radius of operating space?
“He’s able to do it in a telephone booth,” marvelled teammate John Tavares. “And he obviously loves the opportunity with the puck on his stick and the game on the line.”
Matthews provided the final play, but it really was an evening in which both sides displayed the assortment of young talent they’ve acquired by first being among the worst teams in hockey for several seasons.
For the Leafs, Mitch Marner picked up another assist to stay fourth in league scoring, and defenceman Morgan Rielly continued to keep his name in the Norris Trophy conversation with a strong night and almost 26 minutes minutes of play. Buffalo, led by Eichel, showed its flashy riches on defence with first-overall pick Rasmus Dahlin (29:15) and Rasmus Ristolainen (27:00), while steady Sam Reinhart had a goal.
Eichel’s goals were both the result of powerful moves, the first a slapshot after a hard diagonal pass through the zone from Ristolainen, the second a drive through the slot and a finishing shot past Freddie Andersen. Matthews’ two goals were a little more creative, the first a quick wraparound after deftly fielding a puck high off the ice and tucking home a wraparound, the second the gorgeous drag move with one eye seemingly on the clock.
“You kind of treat it like as another game, but when you go against superstars on the other side like (Eichel), I think it elevates your game,” said Matthews.
It was Buffalo’s third straight defeat after those 10 triumphs, but this one seemed to particularly sting.
“This one is disappointing,” said Reinhart. “I wouldn’t say we’d been eyeing this game for a long time, but we were definitely prepared for it. When you have an opportunity to play one of the best teams in the world, you want to make the most of it.”
The Leafs, of course, plan to strengthen their team in the near future, perhaps as soon as Thursday at home against Detroit, with the return of William Nylander. Nylander signed a new six-year contract on Saturday and flew back to Canada the next day, but already head coach Mike Babcock is itching to get him back in the lineup.
More talent on the way for a team that is just starting to realize how good it might be.