The Toronto Maple Leafs are in the playoff race. Currently chasing their divisional rivals including the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins, the Leafs needed to keep winning in order maintain their pace and close the gap.
The Centennial Classic was held on New Year’s Day to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NHL and the Maple Leafs. Toronto met the Detroit Red Wings for the second time outdoors and proceeded to play a relatively boring game on the offensive side of the puck for the first two periods. Thanks to a bevy of goals and excitement through the final 20 minutes and in overtime, however, the game was saved and more than lived up to its lofty billing.
While Toronto won the game 5-4, in typical Leaf fashion, they didn’t make it easy, giving up a three-goal lead in the third period before Auston Matthews buried the game-winning goal in the extra session.
My colleague, Brandon Share-Cohen, wrote a fantastic recap of the game.
Leafs Rookies Continue to Amaze
Matthews has been a huge story since he was drafted by the Leafs back in June. The 2016 first overall pick has transitioned into the NHL with ease and in every game has shown incredible poise and maturity beyond his years.
Matthews and the rest of the Leafs rookies were a force on the day. After Leo Komarov opened the scoring it was former London Knight, Mitch Marner’s turn to add his own tally. Matthews would rip a bullet high glove and there was also an excellent goal by Connor Brown and assists throughout the game off the sticks of William Nylander and Zach Hyman. Despite all of that, the Wings battled back and sent the game to overtime.
The ref cam of Auston Matthews’ goal is incredible. Absolute rip. His 19th of the season. pic.twitter.com/oaDnHH3PG6
— Marina Maher (@marinakmaher) January 1, 2017
If you were a Leaf fan watching the game, seeing Red Wings forward Anthony Mantha tie it with a second on the clock had to be extremely frustrating. It brought back shades of the 2013 playoffs when the Leafs blew a three-goal lead and were swiftly defeated in overtime.
This time around, the end was result was much more favourable for fans of the Blue and White. Matthews was able to slow a bouncing puck and deftly lift it into the back of the net. With the brilliantly executed backhand in overtime, Matthews has seemingly helped exorcise the demons of the 2013 playoff collapse.
History was working against the Leafs in regard to the memorable ending to that playoff series. This is a new team with greater ambitions that can finally make peace with the past and focus on the future.
Matthews is a Maple Leaf
It may be hard for some fans to grasp, but Matthews is a Toronto Maple Leaf. Brendan Shanahan set his rebuilding plan in motion and the pain of last year all turned out to be worth it when the Leafs won the right to select first overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Matthews has been better than advertised, which is saying something. He’s a teenager in the NHL who is not only surviving but thriving. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock is committed to making Matthews the best player he can be and that means putting the young centre out against opponents’ top lines.
He’s shutting them down on a regular basis and has also been able to put up a boatload of points. His overtime winner was goal number 20 on the year for the American, which only puts him 14 goals behind Wendel Clark’s rookie record. Matthews has only played in 36 games, so you have to believe that the record is his for the taking.
Auston Matthews OT winner at the Centennial Classic. His second goal of the game. pic.twitter.com/YEA3Rj7ceM
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) January 1, 2017
With his Centennial Classic performance, Matthews has also passed Patrick Laine for first in NHL rookie scoring. He now has 32 points and his 20 goals trail only Sidney Crosby for the league lead. Laine slides into second and a pair of Leafs also make an appearance in the top five.
Marner is third with 27 points and Nylander isn’t far behind at fourth with 25. Zach Werenski, the workhorse on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ blue line, rounds out the top five with an incredibly solid 24 points.
The Maple Leafs go as their rookies produce. It’s an exciting time to be a fan, as the team is young and full of talent that people have been yearning to see for years. The plan is on track and the race to the end of the season is guaranteed to be a nail-biter that keeps fans on the edge of their seats.