Three years after he was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews arrived in Toronto on Monday night.
Though given every chance to do so, the Leafs did not lose. The bullying Bruins obeyed all Canadian laws as regards mugging and unlawful assault. The Leafs special teams showed up. The pace slowed to that of mid-November, from mid-May. There was no final-period collapse.
Most unusually of all, Matthews was the offensive star. From a Toronto perspective, the sun did not set on Monday. It was daylight all evening long.
Judged by his normal standard, Matthews did not put up an exceptional stat sheet – a goal and an assist.
But by his playoff standard, this was Darryl Sittler running amok back when goalie pads weren’t the size of couch cushions.
It was only the second time Matthews had scored more than one point in a postseason game. It was his first goal of this series. And – by far the most important – it got not one, not two, but three “real goods” from coach Mike Babcock.
“Real good legs,” “real good defence” and one overarching “real good” on his play. Babcock doesn’t just give out those “real goods” (unless you ask him any question on any subject at any time).
Speaking at the 2x-regular-speed monotone that all NHLers now use, Matthews played it super cool afterward.
“It’s nice obviously to get one,” he said. “It’s just another level when you get one in the playoffs.”
Despite the real effort at crushing banality, it was hard to credit. Matthews must know he has some work to do in the hearts-and-minds area. Monday was an enormous help.
(Even a headline dodger as accomplished as Babcock hit on this one: “He’s a proud guy … Probably relieved a lot of pressure off him.”)
At this point, Matthews should be the clear favourite on this team. But you’d be hard-pressed to put him in the top three.
Mitch Marner is newer and more cuddly. John Tavares is older and more pedigreed. Morgan Rielly is more articulate and everymanish. Frederik Andersen never says anything, which is the most reliable way to get people to like you. Matthews is the guy who is good when it doesn’t count, but still may be great later. He’s Toronto’s superstar-in-reserve. Nobody’s on the fence about his talent, but a great many are still in that spot when it comes to his ability to force the issue.
The irony is that there is no hockey town on the continent where it is easier to get people to fall in love.
You could see everyone in the Scotiabank Arena doing it on Monday night. It’s just one game, and a narrow 3-2 result. No one in blue-and-white did anything mind-bending. But neither did anyone do anything bone-headed or completely bonkers. In Toronto, ‘non-idiotic’ qualifies as hall-of-fame potential.
In their habitual crumble time (i.e. holding a lead at any point in the third period), the Leafs stiffened up. They looked collected, while Boston looked discombobulated.
Asked afterward what exactly he liked about Toronto’s play in the final period, Rielly said, “Well. We won.”
When it became clear from the looks on a half-dozen faces that that wasn’t quite expansive enough, Rielly went into a spiel.
But he’s right.
In other hockey towns, people are looking for something special in their heroes. In Toronto, just win every once in a while and you are getting a plaque at the very least.
This is the town that treats Mats Sundin like he was Bobby Orr, only a little more Swedish.
It’s the club that created a “Legends Row” and, after putting 14 guys on it, announced it was full.
The team’s been around for 100 years. Fourteen does not seem like a lot.
Do you think the Montreal Canadiens would stop at 14? They’d be doing open calls at sculptors’ colleges.
That’s what Matthews is dealing with. His window to achieving Toronto greatness is more like a rip in the fabric of space-time. If he ever takes proper hold of it, it’s not about this generation. It’s about every one of them going back forever.
First things first, score a few goals in a playoff series. Second things second, win a playoff series. After that, it’s negotiable. For now.
The Leafs have a 2-1 lead in the series. They’ve taken back home-ice advantage. After Nazem Kadri’s suspension, the series appears to have tipped away from the brutality of Game 2.
One supposes that means it’ll be nails through stick blades and open war in Game 4. It’s certainly hard to imagine the Bruins being passive two games in a row. They can’t help but be what they are. At that point, just how ugly it gets is up to the officials.
But if this is the new violence level at which everyone has agreed to play, it could quickly become Matthews’s series.
The question is – how good does he want to be?
Good, real good or actually, honest-to-God, something-greater-than-the-low-bar-of-Toronto good?