“He's the best player in the league,” Michael Bunting said.
This was minutes after the heroic comeback had been completed, and the hats rained down, and the flaws got drowned out by the arena’s roar.
“The best player, by far.”
Matthews and his two perfectly complementary wingers — Mitch Marner welcomes nickname suggestions for the hottest line in hockey — are dragging the Toronto Maple Leafs through the dog days of winter. Through a key injury, some alarming defensive trends, and a prolonged bout of the yips in net.
And they did so again Tuesday in a roller-coaster 6-4 victory over the lottery-bound Seattle Kraken that may have been the Leafiest Leaf game these Leafs have ever Leafed.
Leap to an early 3-1 lead and seemingly hold the outcome in control. Hit snooze and fall behind 4-3. Throw a few superstars over the boards late, capes a-flying, and let them save the night.
“It's no secret who we have on our bench, right? We have weapons,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “If the game is within striking distance, we have difference-makers. That gives us reason for belief.
“There's no doubt we believe we can win any type of game, no matter what the score is or what’s happening. We’ve got a good group, a deep group, and we’ve got game-breakers.”
Somehow, the Leafs glanced at the easiest stretch of their schedule and decided to make it hard.
In the middle of a seven-game run exclusively against opponents outside of the playoff picture, the Cup-dreaming, deadline-buying Maple Leafs have barely kept their heads above water.
Last week’s home losses to Buffalo and Vancouver were partially redeemed by Monday’s nail-biting victory in Columbus.
And things appeared to be on track again Tuesday, as the local heroes pounced on the power-play to seize a 3-1 edge over the expansion Seattle Kraken.
Cue the inevitable comeback.
Yes, for the third straight outing and eighth time in 2022, the Maple Leafs — whose issues are a Venn diagram of two intersecting circles labelled “defence” and “goaltending” — let a multi-goal lead disintegrate.
The Kraken rallied with three unanswered goals to swipe a third-period advantage.
“I was disappointed to once again give up the lead,” said Keefe, whose crackdown on rush chances has turned into an emphasis on boxouts and net-front discipline.
“We want to plug one hole over here, and usually something else kind of pops up. So we're looking to plug as many of these holes as we can. But like I said, I like the fact that our team once again, in that situation, calmly gathered itself and went out and won a hockey game.”
Toronto built its early lead on the strength of power-play markers from core stars Matthews and William Nylander, while John Tavares notched his first even-strength goal in 17 games.
Carson Soucy, Alexander Wennberg, Colin Blackwell (shorthanded), and Jaden Schwartz responded for Seattle. No, the Kraken didn’t outplay Toronto, but the visitors cashed in on the Leafs’ defensive lapses.
Jack Campbell has promised to be better, and on this evening his .867 save percentage was good enough to outduel Philipp Grubauer’s .836. Baby steps.
“We made it tough on him,” Keefe said. “Not good enough on our part.”
“Keefer has a lot of confidence in me. Felt great to be back in there tonight,” Campbell said. “Keep working on some details, but I felt much better.”
One had to wonder, however, what was running through the goaltender’s mind as the pucks zipped past in a crashing wave. Or what solutions Leafs peak performance coach Greg Harden, taking in the action from the press box Tuesday, might have in store.
Thankfully, Matthews clapped back to tie the affair midway through the third, bailing out his team with a burst and slick deke.
“It’s a no-doubter type finish,” Keefe said. “I think we’re at the point where it's hard to be surprised by what Auston does.”
Marner ripped the winner on the power-play just 40 seconds later, and Matthews completed his hat trick into an empty net just for kicks.
The Hart candidate has 43 goals in his Rocket Trophy defence, a silly 36 in his past 37, and admits he sometimes thinks about how sweet 50 will taste.
Is there a word for how Matthews is operating these days?
“Machine,” Campbell said.
As Toronto hung on for two dramatic points, it was another evening that reinforced the infuriating/exhilarating juxtaposition that is the Maple Leafs in 2022.
Able to score and get scored on in bunches, they’re either slamming the gas or fishtailing near the ditch.
Cursed in their own end. Blessed with game-breakers in the enemy’s zone.
These days, they’ll take their chances playing next-goal-wins.
You might, too, when the puck is on Matthews’ tape.
Fox’s Fast 5
• How might a five-year, $25-million contract extension change former Leaf Jared McCann’s life?
He’s been a renter throughout his seven-year, four-franchise NHL career. Now he’s ready to be a homeowner.
See, millennials? It’s totally doable.
• Asked Dave Hakstol, who was on the Maple Leafs bench for their postseason losses in 2020 and 2021, for his theory on why Toronto has yet to get over the hump.
“I watch it from a different viewpoint now. There's no easy way to get there,” replied Hakstol, hesitant to get specific.
“I believe that group will just continue to grow, learn from the different challenges and successes and failures. And that's how you do it. Because there's no easy way to the end. You can look back on any team that's been able to do it. So, it's a character group. It's a skilled group. It's a good group of people.”
• Jake Muzzin (concussion) hit the ice for about 40 minutes Tuesday morning. Keefe doesn’t see that as a surprise because “he’s been feeling good for a little while now.”
The Maple Leafs remain cautious and patient and will not put a definitive timeline on Muzzin’s return, but the blueline misses him. It’s difficult to believe he’ll ride LTIR all the way until the playoffs begin in May.
• Wayne Simmonds was honoured for his 1,000th game with a silver stick and a Tiffany crystal in a blue-carpet ceremony. His young daughters, Kori and Kapri, were gifted with silver mini sticks, and teammates past (Drew Doughty, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier) and present (Tavares, Michael Bunting, Jason Spezza), plus Willie O’Ree recorded messages for a congratulatory video:
“His family's out there and you're watching this video and we're seeing the journey, seeing the impact that he’s made in the community here,” Keefe reflected. “You just can't help but feel the pride that he has to be a Maple Leaf at this point in his career.”
Campbell looked up to the big screen and saw an old friend in Doughty and a recent one in Giroux, whom he met at all-star weekend: “When I was there, he was talking about Simmer so much.”
• Ondrej Kase (upper body) returned after missing four games, subbing out Spezza (healthy scratch) and forming a new-look fourth line with Simmonds and Alexander Kerfoot.