One point was all Auston Matthews could manage on his own.
Looking a little aggrieved after Connor McDavid stole the headlines and highlights on his ice surface 48 hours before, Matthews submitted a Herculean effort Wednesday versus the Winnipeg Jets, but the Toronto Maple Leafs fell 4-3 in a shootout anyway.
Matthews registered two goals to surpass the 30-mark on the season, using No. 31 to force overtime with 14 seconds remaining in the contest. He made both franchise and U.S. history by reaching the goal-scoring standard in a fourth consecutive season to begin his career.
Frederik Andersen was the only other Leaf to exceed a basic level of mediocrity in what was a largely bewildering game, which marked the club’s first losses in consecutive outings in five weeks. He made 25 saves in regulation and overtime, but was beat on three of four shots faced in the shootout.
The Leafs have three days to prepare for their first meeting with the Florida Panthers on Sunday in Sunrise.
Until then, two points.
‘You love to see that’
It was truly the complete Auston Matthews experience.
Three-zone dominance, relentless attacking pressure, near-show-stopping creativity, a dramatic last-second strike and the tidiest finish in the shootout.
While he nearly logged 25 minutes for the first time this season, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe fought himself to not throw the rotations completely out of whack by sending the superstar sniper over the boards over, and over, and over again. And you can understand the urge, because every time Matthews was on the ice Toronto threatened to score.
As mentioned, he finished the game with two goals, salvaging a point for his team with another lethal release from the top of the right circle. But it was his first that provided an indication that Matthews was to be a force versus Winnipeg.
There are three elements to the goal, perhaps in reverse order of how special and important they were.
With five or six hard strides out of the Jets’ zone Matthews chased down Nikolaj Ehlers, putting himself in position to reverse play with nothing more than effort and anticipation.
Without hesitation, Matthews touched it to Marner in space to spring the counterattack.
Matthews swung back into the zone and carves through the transition coverage, taking the pass before beating Connor Hellebuyck with a wicked shot.
The goal came less than a minute after Ehlers opened the scoring into an empty net after Andersen tumbled out of his own crease. He quite figuratively picked his goaltender up, dusting the snow off of him.
“It came from effort — effort defensively to get back,” Keefe said after the final buzzer. “That was a big focus for us in the hockey game and he led the way for us there and [was] he ever rewarded for it, so you love to see that.”
While McDavid’s star shone brighter than his did last time out, Matthews’ brilliance, of course, is not limited to his most recent performance. He’s now one goal behind David Pastrnak for the league lead, and his own captain submitted his name for year-end award consideration after the game.
Matthews getting plenty of love from his teammates. They definitely 'Hart' the guy. pic.twitter.com/LkmCo7klkh— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) January 9, 2020
“The way he’s been playing has been like an MVP,” John Tavares said. “He keeps coming up huge for us.”
The latest Keefe innovation — if you’re willing to call it that — was the coach’s proactive approach to kick-starting Travis Dermott’s season. Largely treading water since the start of his year — which came four weeks in — Dermott hasn’t continued on a linear trajectory since his introduction to the NHL two seasons back.
The concept is simple enough; introducing new and more difficult challenges remains a typical method coaches use to define roles and plateaus for their assets. Usually, though, there’s a graduation process and through 31 games in an injury-shortened season, Dermott hasn’t necessarily commanded more responsibility with his play.
But with Jake Muzzin out — and Martin Marincin remaining Martin Marincin — the fact of the matter is that Dermott is the best option over the press box mainstay, and there was reason to test-drive Dermott in that elevated, second-pair role on Wednesday.
All told, he probably earned another spin.
Dermott played just 13 seconds shy of the team leader in even-strength ice time, Morgan Rielly. The underlying numbers weren’t terrific, but the Leafs didn’t give up much in the way of significance with Dermott on the ice and there was nothing he could really do after a John Tavares turnover and an ill-advised Justin Holl pinch combined to result in three of the most talented Jets streaming down the ice to score on a three-on-one.
But what Dermott has to start doing to demonstrate that he can be that reliable top-four defenceman is to add a finishing element to his defensive work.
In many ways, this is a play most representative of Dermott’s game right now, as he wows by shutting down a potential scoring chance from Mark Scheifele only to fail to make the play that exits the zone.
This is illustrative of Dermott's season. Makes a good, strong play to prevent a chance and dispossess Scheifele, but fails to finish the sequence with a clearance. pic.twitter.com/xbfRiQtM0z— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) January 9, 2020
While the opportunity may be fleeting, Dermott is in the position he needs to be right now — leaving sheltered minutes behind to take on top competition as part of the Leafs’ middle pair.
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