So superb was the 40-save performance of Igor Shesterkin, the New York Rangers goaltender became the first man to keep Matthews off the scoresheet in a season debut. And teammate Chris Kreider suggested the sport be renamed entirely.
“I think it’s no secret that our goalie stole that one for us,” said Kreider, coming up for air on the lucky side of a 2-1 overtime thriller.
“Sometimes hockey should just be called goaltending in games like that.”
True, the highly anticipated debut of the NHL’s goal-scoring champ was spoiled at home by the Maple Leafs’ first U.S.-based opponent in more than 19 months.
And yet, Matthews could barely stop smiling afterward.
Before slipping back into the crisp sneakers and T-shirt he walked in with on game night, Matthews glowingly spoke about teammates Jack Campbell and Michael Bunting. And he thanked an adrenaline rush for carrying his well-taxed legs through nearly 23 minutes of hockey.
Back to the office — catch the thrill.
“It felt awesome, honestly. Just the energy. You can feel it throughout the rink. It’s pretty amazing. Obviously, we would’ve liked to get that second point. But just to be playing in front of fans again, it’s quite a feeling. So, it was a lot of fun out there,” Matthews beamed.
“I can definitely walk away happy with it had some good chances and good looks, and I think that’s all you can ask for, especially just jumping right in. I felt pretty good.”
New York’s own marquee star, Artemi Panarin, drove the dagger in a wild fourth period off a key offensive-zone draw won by Mika Zibanejad. The Breadman’s well-timed first of the season was punctuated by a triple high-step leap.
Zibanejad, now blessed with nine years of contract security, got the Rangers on the board first with a blistering wrist shot. The centreman’s blast pinged the netcam so fast, video review was necessary to confirm that the puck indeed beat Campbell on its way in and out.
For the third time in four games, the Maple Leafs dug themselves an early hole to crawl out.
Bunting crashed the crease during a Morgan Rielly attempt early in the second frame to even the score at one apiece.
“Whether he is scoring or not, he is competing at a very high level,” coach Sheldon Keefe said of the instant fan favourite.
“He is engaged in the game, and he is engaged in every shift. He wants to score. Of course, everybody wants to score, but it is very obvious — it is apparent — that he is putting himself out there. He is not afraid to go to the areas where a goal is more likely to happen. He is in the fight every day. That’s what I like about him.”
There was plenty to like about the Leafs’ second period, as they outshot their American visitors 17-2, but Shesterkin was rock solid all night long, making 40 saves and improving his record to 2-0-1.
“Igor, if not for him, I don’t want to even imagine what would happen,” Zibanejad said.
Thrice the Maple Leafs loaded up their new-look power-play. William Nylander and Rielly clanged consecutive posts in one flurry. Still, the high-skilled unit went 0-for-3 with the man-advantage.
“Until the puck starts going in, there’s not a lot to be proud of,” Rielly said. “But I think it’s right there. We just gotta push a little more and find it.”
The top centre was swiping draws at an 87 per cent success rate and generating chances aplenty in his 2021-22 debut. Matthews ripped a game-high 16 attempts and eight shots on net. He skated 22:53, and would’ve froze the clock in overtime were it not for Shesterkin’s heroics.
“First game back, and he’s a force to be reckoned with,” Campbell said. “Just fun to watch.”
The fun goes both ways.
“I had a blast out there,” said Matthews, feeling the best kind of exhaustion. “I’m definitely going to sleep pretty good tonight.”
That says a lot considering Shesterkin now has every right to cameo in Matthews’ nightmares.
Fox’s Fast Five
• Nick Ritchie has a total of four shots and, through four games, is still looking for his first point as a Leaf. For a first-line winger skating every night alongside Toronto’s best talent, it’s not enough to be just OK.
Keefe is doing his best to deflect criticism away from the $5-million free agent signing: “He’s trying to find his place on the line and how that works. That’s something that takes some time.”
• Forgive Keefe if he pulls some all-nighters this week trying to clone Michael Bunting.
• When we first spoke with Nick Robertson at rookie camp this fall, the prospect was bullish on his chances of breaking through with a full pro season.
“First off, I’m healthy, right?” said Robertson, who was hampered by two significant injuries in 2020-21.
In his second game with the AHL Marlies this season, this happened Sunday:
Robertson needed help off the ice and is out indefinitely with a lower-body injury. That the Marlies recalled forward Jeremy McKenna from the ECHL on Monday is not a good sign.
Horrible luck for a kid who badly wants to make good on his fabulous showing in junior.
• Toronto’s fourth line looks vastly improved with Pierre Engvall subbing in for Mike Amadio, and Jason Spezza remains one of hockey’s greatest bargains.
• A crowd 18,098 attended Scotiabank Arena Monday. For many reasons, the Maple Leafs are still awaiting their first sellout of the year.