Zach Werenski stood in the hallway getting interviewed by a couple visiting reporters as Auston Matthews walked by on his way to the dressing room. There was a rare hint of strain on the face of the Leafs rookie as he stifled the urge to playfully chirp his close friend.
Only three years removed from playing together at the U.S. national development program, it wasn’t too long ago they were dreaming of a moment like this one.
It arrived with so much excitement for Werenski that he came to Nationwide Arena and participated in an optional morning skate for the first time all season. He had woken up early Wednesday and wanted to shake out the extra energy.
“Playing Matthews,” he said of the altered game-day routine. “And all the young guys.”
To step back from the emotion of a hard-fought 5-2 win here by Toronto, and what it meant in the standings, was to see a pair of organizations fundamentally changed by their youth movements.
It runs much deeper than Matthews and Werenski, but they are the crown jewels. They could also very well find themselves vacationing together in Las Vegas this June as finalists for the Calder Trophy.
“That would be nice,” said Werenski.
Nicest of all was simply having a game like this one on the schedule to play. The Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs were 100 miles away from this level of hockey last March while on the way to a 27th- and 30th-place finish, respectively.
Now the Blue Jackets are fighting for the Presidents’ Trophy and the Leafs are looking like good bets to make their first playoff appearance after an 82-game season since 2004.
Matthews and Werenski seemed to be in the middle of everything during a game that carried more intensity than most – with the Leafs centre scoring his team-best 33rd goal of the season and the Blue Jackets defenceman making an error on Leo Komarov’s opening goal before atoning by finding a seam with a point shot that Brandon Saad tipped home to tie it 2-2.
They controlled play for a wide swath of time and helped ease any concerns on the bench after Toronto had squandered a 2-0 lead.
“I thought the shift after they got the second goal, Matthews’ line came on and they dominated in the offensive zone,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “We kind of got our feet under us again.”
These aren’t ordinary rookies.
In a season where first-year players have sent a seismic shock through the NHL, we had four of the top-five scoring freshmen on the same ice: Matthews (second), Mitch Marner (third), Nylander (fourth) and Werenski (fifth).
Naturally, Nylander scored the winner with a wicked wrist shot and claimed a $212,500 entry-level bonus in the process because it was his 20th goal.
You’d never know that they’ve all taken a giant leap up from their previous stops. Werenski experienced a lull before the Blue Jackets’ bye arrived last month and he’s put up 16 points during an impressive 17-game stretch.
Matthews seems to be emerging from a drought that’s seen him account for just three points over the past 10 games and acknowledged it’s been an adjustment getting used to the frenetic NHL schedule.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” he said. “There’s been moments. You’re going to have ups and downs throughout the year, it’s just the way the season goes. I think it’s just making sure you work that much harder and just push through it, whether the puck’s going in or not.
“Just making sure you can make an impact whatever way possible.”
He’s made a point of grabbing extra rest whenever there’s an opportunity. His preferred method of chilling out is watching TV or playing “Call of Duty” with teammates on Xbox.
“Just relax and make sure you’re eating the right food and just getting a lot of rest, especially at this point of the season,” he said. “We only have a handful of games left and they’re very important games for us.”
He and Werenski both seemed to have jump while lining up across from another during this particular 60 minutes.
They are in touch almost daily and had a quick chat in the hallway after showering and changing into their suits.
“I always like playing against buddies and guys that are doing well in this league,” said Werenski. “I think it’s fun. You have to kind of take things in when you’re out there. It’s not every day you get to go out there in the NHL and play against one of your good buddies.”
You never know, the next time it happens might be a few weeks down the road in a playoff series.