TORONTO — It was the storybook finish to what’s looking more and more like a storybook season for the young Toronto Maple Leafs.
Auston Matthews scored a pair of goals in his first-ever game outdoors, including the overtime winner under the bright lights at BMO Field on Sunday night, as the Maple Leafs edged the Detroit Red Wings 5-4.
After eluding Red Wings defender Danny DeKeyser, the 19-year-old rookie from Arizona flipped a quick backhand into the upper reaches of the cage in the extra frame, his 20th goal this season, helping Toronto to its fifth-straight victory.
It’s the longest winning streak in more than three years (December 2014) for an emerging Toronto squad that’s now within sniffing distance of a playoff spot.
"To get a big goal like that, you don’t want to call it a storybook (ending) but you may as well, right?" Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said of Matthews’ first OT winner.
Born in California, but raised in Scottsdale, Matthews didn’t have the early beginnings on outdoor rinks as many NHLers do. He’d also likely never played before a crowd of more than 40,000 people before.
"Definitely one of the best moments in hockey I’ve ever experienced for myself," Matthews said afterward. "It’s pretty special."
His big performance at the Centennial Classic not only pushed him past Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine for the rookie lead in both goals (20) and points (32), but put him near the top of the NHL leaderboard in both categories: Matthews now trails only Sidney Crosby in goals while sitting amongst the top-20 in points.
He’s on track to become the first teenage rookie in the salary cap era to score 40 goals, currently on pace for 46 this season. Matthews has scored in four straight games and has 14 goals in the last 17 games.
"I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that’s surprised by it," said Rielly. "He’s got a skillset that allows him to do things that a lot of other people can’t do. But on top of that, he’s got a good brain, he works hard and he’s been playing with good teammates.
"We have lots of faith that it’s going to continue to roll the way it is."
Matthews’ overtime winner helped the Leafs avoid a stinging defeat with conditions pretty close to perfect — sunny and relatively warm with no snow — on the outdoor rink of a facility used typically for soccer and football. The club went up by three goals in the third period, scoring four unanswered, only to see that lead melt away against the Wings, who tied the score at 4-4 with 1.1 seconds left in regulation.
Toronto has seen a number of leads slip away during the win streak and the group has had to rally on multiple occasions to pick up two points and a victory.
"It’s 4-1, just get it out of your zone," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "It was so easy. And like you’ve seen us do it, it’s just like deja vu. But we got a lesson here tonight and still won the game for our fans. And let’s be honest, the NHL likes it that it was 5-4 way better than it would’ve been 1-0 so it’s exciting."
Babcock made it a point of putting his youngest players, including an all-rookie line led by Matthews, on the ice in the waning moments against Detroit. That trio in particular had scored two of the four unanswered third period goals and deserved an opportunity to close out the game, he said.
The line couldn’t clear the puck in their end with multiple chances and Anthony Mantha capitalized by scoring his second of the night to tie it. It extended Mantha’s point streak to six games.
"It’s the confidence. The chemistry is also coming along, the coaches having confidence in me also, gives me more ice time, so I just need to keep playing the way I am," Mantha said.
Babcock defended his decision to put rookies on the ice late in the game.
"Why don’t I just put the veteran guys out?" Babcock said. "Because they’ve got to learn."
"I loved tonight," he added. "The way it happened tonight I really liked it because it’s so easy to feel so bad for yourself and be disappointed. ‘Forget all that. Just play the next shift.’ And I thought we did that."
The worst team in the NHL last season, the Leafs are winning these days primarily behind the play of their youngsters — nine rookies dressing against the Red Wings and three scoring goals — Connor Brown and Mitch Marner also finding the back of the net 71 seconds apart in the third to hand Toronto its first lead.
Rielly, 22, said this was the closest group he’d been apart in a brief NHL career, mentioning the overwhelming youth as at least part of the reason.
Babcock said this team, in contrast to those that Rielly was apart of his first three NHL seasons, was likely to stick together and thus able to feel a true bond and sense of long-term purpose.
"These guys aren’t leaving," he said. "They’re staying. And they’re going to stay for a long time and be a real good team. Now, it’s going to take us some time to get there.
"But we’re going to get better."