“This feels a lot better,” Matthews said after Wednesday’s 7-2 dismantling of the Winnipeg Jets.
It was a night that immediately washed away a training camp’s worth of optimism in one city while prolonging the blissful excitement in the other. That, too, will be chipped away over the grind of 82 games in 186 days, but the Leafs bought everyone a little more time to dream.
They also produced some compelling evidence that at least one prevailing theory about their makeup may last through the winter. This group seems capable of outscoring its problems.
I mean they took the first three penalties of the game and surrendered 15 shots over 13 minutes. Frederik Andersen possesses a heart surgeon’s composure, but even he reported dealing with a quickened pulse after turning back a Patrik Laine one-timer and out-waiting a Jacob Trouba surge across the crease.
And, yet, when the horn sounded on the intermission Toronto was ahead 3-0. Calm was quickly restored after some early chaos on the visitor’s bench.
The Leafs were aided by a shaky debut for Jets goalie Steve Mason, but they also made their own luck. There was a nifty Mitch Marner-Tyler Bozak-James van Riemsdyk passing sequence before Nazem Kadri opened the scoring on a power play.
William Nylander had all day and an open net after Matthews swooped across the top of the zone with Dustin Byfuglien shadowing him and crossed up the defenders by sliding the puck to Jake Gardiner, who promptly threaded it through.
There was a gravitational pull towards Matthews early in the second period when both Byfuglien and Trouba shaded to his side of the ice. His response? A backhand flip pass to send Patrick Marleau in alone for the first of his two goals in blue and white after scoring 508 for San Jose.
A.M. to P.M.
“That was awesome,” said Matthews. “Unbelievable pick up by him and the move was even better. Pretty special play.”
Between the disjointed rhythm created by penalties, between all of the fashion crimes – Leo Komarov’s rare “illegal equipment” penalty for wearing his visor too high; warnings to Eric Fehr and Connor Brown for having their sweaters tucked in; Andersen being ordered to cover the knob of his stick in white tape – the Leafs looked like a group that can globe trot.
Three lines that can skate and score and carry stretches of play at 5-on-5. In the words of new defenceman Ron Hainsey, a team that is “awful” to play against and bears some resemblance to the Pittsburgh Penguins crew he won a Stanley Cup with in June.
“A lot of good players who can score, yup,” said Hainsey. “It’s very similar (to Pittsburgh) where you have three lines on both teams that you’re like – there’s no break for the other teams’ players as far as scoring chances and speed and creativity. Very similar in that regard.”
“You can see how hungry they are out there,” Marleau said of his young teammates. “Not only in games but in practice. They’re striving to get better each and every day and you want to be part of that.”
Matthews, Nylander and Mitch Marner all scored in the same game for the third time in their young careers – well, fourth, if you’re willing to include pre-season action.
In this opener, the Leafs managed to silence the Winnipeg crowd – no small feat. The locals didn’t even find a chance to dust off the “Laine’s better!” chant from a year ago.
With Laine and Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers and Blake Wheeler, the Jets should do their fare share of scoring as well this season. There’s a good reason for all of the optimism coursing across the country.
However, in the long run, it will arguably be the play at the other end of the ice that defines the season in both Toronto and Winnipeg.
“Their offensive numbers are really, really good,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Our offensive zone time and numbers are really good. So both teams want to play in the other team’s end because we’re really good at it. Getting the puck there and controlling the puck to get it there is going to be all based on how well you play defensively and how well you battle.
“Neither one of our defensive metrics are great, but they’re both going to get better this year.”
It’s still early. Now the work gets done.
With the season finally underway, there need not be so much talk about expectations and sophomore jinxes – as if such a thing truly exists.
“I just think when you do your work in the off-season, and you get prepared, you don’t tend to have any sophomore jinx,” said Babcock. “If you feel good about yourself and you don’t work, you come back and it doesn’t go as good. You know, I’m not as concerned about that as some might be.
“I just think the guys are good players and they worked hard this summer and so it’ll show this winter.”
Averaging north of three goals a night in today’s NHL puts you in elite company and Toronto should be there again for a second straight year.
They put seven in on opening night. Might as well try to keep up that 1980s-esque pace as long as possible.
“We hope to,” said Andersen. “You can only dream, right?”
At this point, it’s only natural.