Auston Matthews, Good Lord
9:52 AM EST on March 12, 2021
The North (Canadian) Division is so mediocre—or at least its mid-table participants are so calcified in their mediocrity—that it is absolutely not too early to start thinking postseason. The first two playoff rounds in this COVID-constrained season will be fully intradivisional, so any game not featuring the Senators is a potential playoff preview. The most intriguing of these involve the Maple Leafs, who are by far the class of the division,* and the most intriguing of those are probably their games against the Jets, perhaps the only other other North squad with a pair of forward lines anywhere within sniffing distance of Toronto's offensive firepower, plus superior goaltending to boot. (You could make a case for the Oilers. I, personally, would not.)
*And as such have been knocked for that old canard, "they ain't played nobody." This is simultaneously fair and unfair. Yes, the Leafs' record looks good for getting to beat up on the likes of Ottawa and Vancouver, and yes, there's not a second elite team in the division. But what else are they supposed to do? And, c'mon, they're good. Until further notice, there may not be a compelling reason to believe the Leafs are finally real Cup contenders, but there's no strong reason to disbelieve it, either.
This week sees a three-game series between the Leafs and Jets, and so far it's not overly simplistic to say things have come down to Auston Matthews and Connor Hellebuyck. Matthews has been knocking on the door of a 50-goal season for a while, and, incredibly, he has an outside shot to do it in this shortened 56-game season, with 21 goals through 25 games. Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina winner, and while he's scuffled a bit this year, he's still capable of taking over games. He was instrumental in Winnipeg's 4-3 win on Tuesday (despite allowing a pair to Matthews), and despite not being at his best, singlehandedly kept the Jets in Thursday's one-sided tilt, stoning three separate breakaways. He's immensely capable, is what I'm trying to convey right before I show you a video of Matthews freezing him like a bag of peas.
Matthews's overtime winner to give the Leafs the 4-3 win was a thing of beauty: a fake shot, a deke, and a cruelly casual backhand roofer. There's not much you can do against that but look silly.
Least impressed by his stick magic were Matthews's own teammates. "I think it’s difficult for a lot of people," said Mitch Marner. "It’s not difficult for Tony. I’ve seen him pull it off a lot of times." I bet.
The rubber match between these two teams is on Saturday, and taking it would be nice for bragging rights, but it's the familiarization that could pay the biggest dividends in a couple of months. "If that all shakes out and we so happen to play them in playoff time, I think they’ll know what style of game we play, and we’ll know what style of game they play," Jets captain Blake Wheeler said. "And we’ll take it from there.” I wonder if Hellebuyck is learning anything about Matthews's tendencies. He's certainly gotten plenty of chances to see them up close this week.