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Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews stretches during warmups before a game against the New York Rangers, in Toronto, on Oct. 18.Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press

After Auston Matthews had fluffed an empty netter in overtime, the cameras panned in on him on the bench. He had the look of a man trying to figure out what it all means. For a second there, you were staring into the soul of a pro athlete confronting self-doubt.

But after Monday’s game – Matthews’s Leafs’ debut following off-season wrist surgery – he was as buoyant as he ever gets.

He said all the right things about being happy to be back, about feeling the energy of the crowd, about his chemistry with “Mitchy.” If they gave out degrees in the Sports Cliché Arts, Matthews would be the emeritus chair.

Now into his sixth year, Matthews is starting to get the hang of how things work here – everything the Leafs do is simultaneously the most important thing ever and, because it never amounts to anything, sort of meaningless.

Matthews’s return was piped in like a triumphal march. He came, he played, he didn’t quite conquer. The Leafs lost. Huzzah!

Now on to a glorious regular season that is an extended prelude to the Most Important First Round Playoff Series of All Time. Somehow, the next six months will be interminable and frenzied – a trick only the Leafs can manage.

“All or Nothing”: that’s what they say about the team (presumably because “Nothing” doesn’t have the same ring). This is the only benefit to constant failure in professional sports – your customers find a way to live with, and even enjoy, your mediocrity.

But the one guy you get the sense has something to lose this season, as well as something to prove, is Matthews.

At 24, he’s not young by NHL standards any more. Based on his statistics, he’s in his prime. He’s the best, most expensive player on a front-loaded roster that cannot get it done. He’s nearly halfway through his five-year deal.

Does anybody think Matthews is coming back for more if this doesn’t work out inside that five-year window?

So there’s pressure-point number one – urgency. For the first time, you can really hear the current roster’s countdown clock ticking.

Pressure-point number two is expectation. Toronto has expected a lot from Matthews from the go, and he has occasionally delivered. Enough to earn himself mulligans for his post-season vanishing acts and off-ice embarrassments.

But now America is beginning to discover Matthews.

He got full shampoo-and-blowout profile treatment from ESPN in the pre-season. That piece described Matthews in Christ-like terms (“transcendent”). There was a lot of stuff in there about his friendship with Justin Bieber and no stuff in there about his late-night run-ins with security guards.

You could feel the hands of the league and its new broadcast partners at the Worldwide Leader in Sports coming together in fiduciary friendship: “We have found an American, and he is marketable.”

If the NHL is going to increase its sales reach in the U.S., it needs a native son to front the operation. It would help if that American was on a team that could make it past the first round of the playoffs. If he can’t manage that, then forget it.

A complication/opportunity this year is the Beijing Olympics. Before the Games start, Matthews will be the star turn on Team U.S.A. This is pressure-point number three – the boy becomes a man.

If he plays well and the U.S. excels, Matthews will from that point on be perceived as a fully formed player. An Arizonan Sidney Crosby.

Once that happens, all his youthful-folly escape clauses vanish forever. If Matthews can’t make America and Toronto winners in the same year, he will get tagged as a me-first guy who only cares about his image back home.

If he doesn’t play well in China, that’s worse. Now he’s a bust on both sides of the border. The Leafs have been sold a bill of goods by a guy who’s great when it doesn’t matter, and invisible when it does.

Either way, Matthews and the Leafs begin their playoff journey two months after Beijing – soon enough that whatever impression he makes in China will be fresh in people’s minds.

Though Matthews feels more of the squeeze than anyone else, it’s not because it’s all his fault. The Leafs’ Big Four have, each in their way, failed.

But Matthews is the only one who got a call from ESPN saying, “We’d like to describe you in terms usually reserved for the heads of major religions and then photograph you in all of your favourite outfits,” and he said yes.

If you want the spoils of fame, then you’re going to have to take the criticism that goes along with it. A lot of athletes don’t get that basic social math. One hopes Matthews does.

There is one easy solution – win two or three playoff rounds. That solves all problems, and makes Matthews what the NHL would like him to be – a closer.

But let’s say that doesn’t happen.

Then Matthews embarks on a new journey of blame and recrimination – one that non-ESPN poster boys Mitch Marner and William Nylander won’t be joining him on.

The Leafs can’t lose again and get away with shrugging their shoulders. In order to avoid civic strife, something will have to change. No one’s trading Matthews, but that only means he gets to stick around and absorb all the fans’ frustration.

That’s the final pressure point – time travelling.

In everyone’s mind, the Leafs are already in May, 2022. The base is already trying to figure out what about Tampa in the playoffs? Or Boston? Is this guy good enough? Shouldn’t we trade that guy? Or everyone? Wouldn’t a whole new team be a good idea?

The hysterical stuff would normally start floating around a team at the trade deadline and then again a couple of weeks before the playoffs. With the 2021-22 Leafs, it will be omnipresent.

If you care about the Leafs, it’s a great time to be alive. This entire campaign will feel fraught in ways the regular season almost never does.

But if you are the star forward on that team making a play to become the NHL’s face in America, that has the potential to go wrong in ways you probably haven’t even imagined yet. And you’ve seen some things go wrong.

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