TORONTO – Let this be a reminder about why there’s so much hype when Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine are due to face one another.
It’s not so much a showdown between top picks from the 2016 draft, with personal stakes or a determination about who is ahead in some mythical race without a finish line.
No, it’s an event. Pure and simple.
These are two of the three best players in the NHL’s next generation and when you get them in the same arena the odds of seeing something magical dramatically improve.
“(They mean) a lot to the league, but maybe more to Canada,” Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice said before Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime loss against Toronto. “This is such a passion across the country and (there’s) appreciation for young players. For stars, for gifts, right?
“We’ve all been on the ice as players and we all know how much better Patty and Auston are than we are.”
They even remind you in the moments where they don’t have their heater. The Leafs heavily shaded towards Laine’s side of the ice defensively and allowed the 18-year-old to get off just two shots in the game.
Both happened to get past Frederik Andersen, giving Laine 30 goals on the season.
“It’s a nice number,” he said.
Matthews often wore big Dustin Byfuglien like a shadow in the Jets zone and only sprung free for one shot of his own. He did, however, manage three assists to bump his team-leading point total to 52 – finding William Nylander on the tying goal and connecting with Jake Gardiner on the winner 2:29 into overtime.
Asked what the 19-year-old centre has meant to a Maple Leafs team trying to get into the playoffs one year after finishing 30th, veteran Leo Komarov replied: “A lot.”
“He’s obviously put Toronto on the map again,” said Komarov.
Earlier in the day, Mark Scheifele raved about the way Matthews sees the ice. They played on the same line with Team North America at September’s World Cup and the Jets centre has clearly tracked his counterpart’s progression in the months since.
“He has a plan before he gets the puck,” Scheifele said of Matthews.
It was on a third-period power play where the Leafs centre moved towards the goal and fired a shot that ricocheted off the end boards and directly onto Nylander’s stick.
Just like that it was 4-4.
The real kicker? Those two had worked on that exact play in practice a couple months back, when they were still adjusting to the lively boards at Air Canada Centre. Matthews is the sort of guy who uses his vision to constantly assess the best percentage play in any given situation and decided that was it.
“I didn’t really have a (shooting) lane, so I guess it’s kind of 50 per cent trying to score and 50 per cent really just trying to make whatever happen,” said Matthews. “A good bounce there and a big goal for us.”
Laine has done nothing but score since arriving in North America. He’s the youngest player in the entire NHL this season and now finds himself trailing Sidney Crosby by three goals for the league lead.
He only needed the smallest glimpse of free space to one-time home a pass from Scheifele before the game was five minutes old.
“The first goal he scored was unbelievable,” said Komarov. “You’ve got to be aware all the time when he’s got the puck.”
Laine never dreamed this level of success would arrive so soon.
“No, one goal was my goal for the season,” he said. “My goal was just making the team.”
Both he and Matthews have come from afar bearing unique gifts. This is the happier side of last year’s lost season for the Canadian teams – an NHL campaign that saw the lottery balls bounce in Toronto’s favour, but also Winnipeg’s, with the Jets moving up from the potential sixth pick to the second.
Each teenager has changed the outlook for a franchise, not to mention any meeting between these teams.
“(They) look like they’re going to be significant, generational-type players as long as they’ve got the drive train to keep working,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “And they look to me like they both do.”
What really made Tuesday’s game special was the extra level of excitement and buzz in the air. The playoff races are coming into focus and there were skilled players all over the ice.
There were also hits, and scrums, and heated words exchanged between all of the nifty goals.
“I mean you guys probably did a lot of it,” said Komarov. “It’s a lot of talking between Matthews and Laine.”
The show exceeded its advance billing. It’s too bad we’ll have to wait another season before getting a taste of it again.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever seen players this good this young be as good as we told everybody they were going to be,” observed Maurice. “It’s usually ‘this guy’s a great player’ and in two years he turns out to be a great player.
“These guys are great players now.”