For most of a rather docile game, the Toronto Maple Leafs hung right there with the Detroit Red Wings. Down 1-0 going into the third, the team was struggling to find a breakthrough, but was very much in the game.
Then, the explosion happened.
Perhaps motivated by the fight between Steve Ott and Matt Martin (and perhaps even more so by Ott’s antics, which included him blowing a kiss afterwards) the talented youngsters took over for Toronto, ripping a quick four goals past Red Wings goalie Jared Coreau and blowing the game wide open with just half of the third period to play.
And then the Wings got one back and something strange, though not entirely unexpected happened.
The sticks were being squeezed a little too tight. The pucks were being held onto a little too long. The decisions being made a little too delayed.
And then the Wings got another. And with 1.1 second left another, which just so happened to be the game’s tying goal. And in that final half of the third period, one thing became abundantly clear.
One of these teams have been in high pressure, big game situations at the NHL level before, and one hadn’t. And boy, did it show.
You simply can’t buy experience at this level. You have to go out and earn it the hard way, something the fresh faced Maple Leafs learned the hard way today.
But give this team full credit. They bent, they wavered, they even maybe swayed on their feet, but they maintained their composure and eventually threw the counterpunch they needed. It could not have been easy to start the overtime immediately after coughing up that lead, and yet the team was able to put that past them and move forward.
Auston Matthews scored the winner on a real smart, thinking mans goal to secure both points for the Leafs, who now sit just three points out of a playoff spot. Matthews, who has used his size, speed, and skill to tremendous effect creating chances this season, beat the defender to the front of the net, and quickly took a backhand jab at the puck, pushing into the back of the net before the Wings goalie could get set up.
And while a playoff birth this season when all is said and done is probably still a long shot, the team has shown that they will be a difficult team to beat down the stretch, and are certainly on the cusp of perhaps something real special in Toronto.
And really, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Matthews was the one scoring the winner and rescuing the team from a complete meltdown. The rookie, who is now third in goals in the league, is the definition of composure and calm, never seeming to be swallowed up by the scale of the moment in a city that has been known to “eat its young”.
The American-born number one overall pick now has 20 goals in 36 games, this despite going thirteen straight without earlier in the season. His points-per-game sits at .089, and the game-winner was his third of the year.
But it’s far from a one man show.
Mitch Marner was an impact player today, as he has been most of the year. Morgan Rielly had a strong game, too. Connor Brown, a local boy like Marner, also found the scoresheet in a moment he will surely cherish for some time. William Nylander also had his moments, including during the three-on-three overtime period where he raced to the puck and found a wide open Nazem Kadri, who was robbed by Coreau.
Nylander, for my money, has been the best passer on the team all season long.
Winning the Centennial Classic is absolutely huge for this team for many reasons. Not the least of which is the fact that it was a big game, and they learned how difficult big games can be to close out. Though it wasn’t pretty, and the blown lead shouldn’t be forgotten or glossed over, it may well end up being very beneficial to this team in the long term.
The learning curve in the National Hockey League can be steep. But on night’s like this, you’re reminded that the Maple Leafs appear to be well on their way.