If the voting for the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year award was based only on head-to-head meetings between Patrick Laine and Auston Matthews, the race would still be close.
Laine, the Jets’ rookie star, can boast of five goals in two games against Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He scored three in the first one back in October, including the overtime game-winner.
But Matthews came back strong on Tuesday night, piling up three assists to Laine’s two goals, including his set-up of Jake Gardiner’s game-winner in overtime, which gave the Leafs a 5-4 decision. That leaves Matthews with four assists in two games to Laine’s five goals.
Matthews almost saw a decent game go south with 25.1 seconds left in the third period when he took a hooking penalty. But the Leafs managed to kill off the penalty into overtime, allowing Matthews the chance to set up the game-winner.
The funny thing was that it could be argued that neither player was the most compelling on the ice, as Laine’s only shots on goal were the two he put past goaltender Frederik Andersen. That brought his season total to 30 goals, the most among NHL rookies. It also set a Jets franchise record which goes back to their days as the Atlanta Thrashers, breaking Ilya Kovalchuk’s previous record of 29.
Not that either Laine or Matthews wanted the game to be about them. When he was asked if his goal was to score 30 goals as a rookie, Laine said, “No, one goal was my target at the start of the season.”
Matthews could boast he had a hand in the trickiest goal of the game, one by William Nylander early in the third period that tied the score 4-4. Matthews fired a shot off the end boards and the rebound was picked up by Nylander in front of the net for his 17th goal of the season.
“We did it once in practice,” Matthews said, trying to brush off suggestions it was well-rehearsed trick play. “I was just trying for whatever happened. It was a pretty lucky play.”
Much better, Matthews said, was the two points from the win, which allowed the Leafs to jump over the idle Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins and into third place in the Atlantic Division with 67 points. That is one point behind the Ottawa Senators and in playoff position.
“Those are definitely a big two points for us,” Matthews said. “We’re just trying to stay level-headed, not get too high or too low.”
However, the Leafs could argue they have strength in numbers in the rookie race. While winger Mitch Marner, who had moved into the lead over the last couple of months in some expert opinions, is still out with a shoulder injury, fellow rookie Nylander set up a goal and scored himself, both times tying the score for the Leafs.
The injury bug stayed with the Leafs, as defenceman Connor Carrick was lost in the second period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Head coach Mike Babcock said after the game the injury would allow the Leafs to get a good look at defenceman Alexey Marchenko, who was claimed on waivers from the Detroit Red Wings but has not played for the Leafs yet. This indicates Carrick may be out for a while.
Both Laine and Matthews said before the game that what was important was which team won the game, not the race between them for the Calder Trophy. The point from the overtime loss left the Jets two points behind the Calgary Flames in the chase for the second and final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“I think the media is trying to make a bigger deal out of [the Calder],” Laine said. “But we’re focused on playing against the Maple Leafs and that’s our job.”
Down the hall at the Air Canada Centre, Matthews said much the same to the media after the Leafs’ game-day skate. “Obviously you guys like to make a big deal out of it but all-in-all it’s an important two points for both teams,” he said. “We’re both in pretty similar situations. These are valuable points and it’s going to be a pretty intense game.”
It certainly was an intense game, marked by a wild finish to the second period when three goals were scored by both teams, along with a fight. But it was Laine’s second goal that mattered, as he scored with three seconds left in the period to put the Jets up 4-3. The goal came just 26 seconds after the Leafs tied the score 3-3 and looked like they were finally ready to reap the benefits of controlling the play for most of the night.
The Leafs outshot the Jets 27-15 in the first two periods and also dominated in shot attempts in five-on-five play at 40-15. But they simply could not stand prosperity, giving back the lead three times in the first two periods.
On two of those occasions, Laine had a hand in the damage. In the first period, after the Leafs opened the game well and took the lead at 1:02 on a goal by Leo Komarov, Laine ripped a one-timer shot by Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen at 4:25 to tie the score.
Then as the second period came to a close, Komarov scored his second goal of the game at 19:28 to tie the score two minutes after Nikolai Ehlers put the Jets ahead 3-2. But the Leafs wilted quickly and Laine scored his 30th goal of the season, which set off a scrum and a fight when Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien caused some mayhem in the crease.
Bryan Little scored the other Jets goal, while Nazem Kadri had the Leafs’ second goal.
“Coming back at different times showed a lot of maturity in our group,” Gardiner said. “It was one of those games we felt we outplayed them most of the game. We felt in the room we were going to come back.”
Despite Laine’s scoring heroics, the debate over the NHL’s rookie award essentially remained the same as it was going into the game. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the equation.
Laine, of course, leads all NHL rookies in points and goals, with 54 and 30, respectively, in 55 games. Matthews is second with 52 points (28 goals) in 59 games.
Matthews, 19, plays centre, the more difficult position than Laine’s right-wing spot. And his puck possession numbers are better despite the fact Matthews played most of the season with two fellow rookies, Zach Hyman and Connor Brown, whose hockey skills are nowhere near as advanced as his. But Matthews has played more with Nylander of late thanks to the shoulder injury to Marner.
Laine plays with centre Mark Scheifele, a young, burgeoning star, and veteran Mathieu Perreault. They may be higher-quality linemates, but Laine is two months shy of his 19th birthday, five months younger than Matthews, and this is his first taste of high-level professional hockey. Matthews played in the Swiss league last season.Report Typo/Error