Auston Matthews returned to the Maple Leafs lineup Monday to a hero’s welcome. Fans at Scotiabank Arena gave the star centre a rousing ovation during player introductions and cheered as he unleashed Toronto’s first two shots against the New York Rangers.
The NHL’s reigning goals champion sat out the first three games while he recovered from wrist surgery. He did not score in Toronto’s 2-1 overtime defeat but he cranked out shots all night. In five previous seasons, the 24-year-old had nine goals in his first games of a season.
Artemi Panarin netted the game-winner with 1:12 left in the five-minute extra period. New York goalie Igor Shesterkin shone brightest in this one, allowing only one of 41 shots to get by him.
Matthews’s teammates were eager to have him rejoin them and it was easy to see why.
“We all know what kind of a player he is,” Rasmus Sandin, the 21-year-old defenceman, said earlier in the day. “He can make a huge difference for us. In practice he has looked unbelievable, as usual. Nothing has changed really. He looks more than ready.”
It took Matthews little time to make his presence felt. He barely missed a long, hard wrist shot less than two minutes into the game, and then followed it up with another 10 seconds later.
“I wish he wasn’t coming back tonight,” Gerard Gallant, the Rangers’ head coach, said before the morning skate. “He is one of the top players in the game. Hopefully he will be a little rusty but I don’t expect that.”
There wasn’t much rust to see at all. Matthews took 16 shots on the evening, including eight on net. He also made a fabulous pass behind his backto set up a dangerous shot on goal.
Matthews said on Sunday that it was a difficult decision to bench himself to start the year but needed just a bit more time to heal.
“I felt great the past week,” Matthews said Sunday. “I was itching to get in but it was good to be patient and to make sure I feel confident. And I absolutely do. I am pumped. It’s not a lot of fun watching.”
Matthews led the team with 10 shots taken over the first two periods. He got his 11th early in the third after a turnover in front of the New York net but Shesterkin turned it away. The Rangers goalie was terrific throughout.
He kept his team in the game even though it was outplayed over long stretches. After 40 minutes, the game was tied 1-1 but Toronto had outshot its opponent 29-12. It held a 41-23 edge at the end.
Mika Zibanejad put the Rangers ahead 1-0 with a hard 42-foot wrist shot that eluded Jack Campbell with 6:11 left in the first period. It was the first goal of the season for the Swedish centre to go with four assists. A minute earlier Campbell had rejected a dangerous backhand by Julien Gauthier.
Toronto tied it on a gritty goal by its first-year forward Michael Bunting. The left winger won a battle at the left side of the net and squeezed it past Shesterkin 1 minute 36 seconds into the third period. It was Bunting’s second goal in the last two games.
The contest pitted two Original Six franchises against one another. It was the first time an American team visited Scotiabank Arena for a regular-season game since March 10, 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has been a long time,” John Tavares, the Toronto captain, said earlier in the day. He went 15-4 on faceoffs in the loss. “You have to familiarize yourself with some of the teams and players again.”
Campbell, who had stopped 61 of 63 shots in two starts and one relief appearance to begin the year, put in another strong performance. He wasn’t kept particularly busy until the end, when he had fans shouting “Soup” each time he turned a puck away, especially during a frantic overtime session. He ended up with 21 saves.
The Maple Leafs fell to 2-1-1. The Rangers’ record is the same. Toronto’s next game is Friday night at home against the San Jose Sharks.
The best news for the Maple Leafs was that Matthews looked comfortable and confident in his return. He was not only dominant on offence but also won 13 of 15 faceoffs.
“It’s huge [to have him back],” coach Sheldon Keefe said beforehand. “He is one of the best players in the world. It has been tough not having him in the games, because you see just how effective and dominant he is in practice.”