TSN Toronto reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on the Maple Leafs. The team (optional) and Senators skated at Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday morning.
Marc Crawford coached Auston Matthews in the Swiss league during his draft year and found out, almost immediately, that the kid from Arizona was the real deal.
"When he was with us in Zurich, I think the thing that kind of told me as a coach right away is, the older players, really, they’re always cautious whenever good, young players come in and they’ve heard of them and Auston was in that category. So, veteran players, it’s not that they're cynical, but they want to really see it. And very quickly our guys in Zurich were like, 'Ooh, boy, he's pretty good. I’d like to be on his line,' sort of thing."
Fast forward a few years and now Crawford is behind the bench of the Ottawa Senators – elevated from assistant to interim head coach on March 1 – trying to devise a game plan to slow down Matthews, who has lived up to the hype with 197 points in his first 201 NHL games.
"Speed is really at a premium in the National Hockey League and Auston carries speed and he has the ability to make moves as he's carrying that speed as well as anybody that there is," Crawford observed. "Having coached Auston, you recognize how good he is carrying speed through the neutral zone. He's one of those players that's been able to make moves and he's got no fear of carrying that speed through the neutral zone and that’s really the new wave of the National Hockey League."
Matthews' current coach often points to skating as the bellwether that shows when the centre is on his game.
"The biggest thing with him is skating," Mike Babcock said after Friday's win over Philadelphia, "and his physical side of his game on offence is making him way better, and when you’re skating like he is, you’re back there for defence and you’re not giving anything up."
The numbers overall – 34 goals and 31 assists in 57 games – look amazing for Matthews this season, but it hasn’t always been smooth. He dealt with a shoulder injury, which cost him 14 games and blunted his momentum after an incredible start. And despite possessing the dynamic ability to take over games, the 21-year-old seemed passive at times.
"I don't know if it had to do with negotiations or any of those things," Babcock said. "I don’t know. We're all human beings. I know, the players, when they feel great they play right. When you don’t feel good, you don’t play."
What’s clear now is that Matthews, who signed a contract extension on Feb. 5, is flying with four goals and one assist in the last three games. He’s been very vocal this week about the need for the team to turn things up a notch and he is leading by example.
"We were pretty good all game," Matthews said Friday night when asked about his line. "It doesn’t look too good on the scoresheet when you’re minus two, but I thought we had a lot of good chances there in the first period. A couple face-offs there where they had some set plays and they’re capitalizing so that’s something we can all clean up, but I thought the first and third we were dominant. We had the puck lots and were creating plays and luckily, we finally got a couple goals at the end which was a nice little reward for us."
With Kasperi Kapanen out with a concussion, Matthews has been reunited with right winger William Nylander, who also seems to have lifted his level.
"He's playing great," said Matthews. "I think we've rekindled that chemistry we had our first two years playing together."
Babcock sees it a bit differently.
"The biggest part about the chemistry is Willie is competing and working and skating and getting pucks," the coach said. "He made an unbelievable play on that one goal (Toronto's fifth), on one leg, winning a battle, making a play. That’s what’s happened. When we put him there before, whether it was his conditioning, whether it was his timing ... it’s a hard league and he wasn’t ready. And now it looks like he’s ready."
It’s a big boost to a team that is struggling to reclaim its top form right now.
"Pretty exciting," said defenceman Jake Muzzin when asked about the Matthews line, which also includes left winger Andreas Johnsson. "It's nice to see. They're working hard, they're shooting, they're getting to the net, they're back hard in the zone. It's really nice to see and it's fun to play with."
In order to have a chance at a big upset tonight Crawford says the Senators need to stay above pucks and neutralize Toronto’s transition game.
"That’s what they do better than anybody in the league, I believe, is they counter on you so well," Crawford noted. "They’ve got a lot of guys that want to get going north as quick as they can and they have the ability to make those passes and really play a game that’s high paced."
The neutral zone is also a key for the Leafs, who have allowed 17 goals in three games this week.
"We got to slow them down in the neutral zone a little more," Muzzin said. "A little more 'skin' we call it around here. We got to do a little bit better job of that around here as D and forwards."
Senators centre Colin White did not skate this morning and will miss a third straight game with a neck injury.
"We want it to be totally 100% completely healed before we'll put him in the lineup," Crawford said. "He's practiced the last couple of days and usually it's after practice that he starts to feel the soreness and strain from it. So, our doctors and our medical people are recommending that we keep him out of practice today and tomorrow and probably again on Monday and then we'll make a further evaluation as we move forward. It hasn't been responding with a single day off so now we're going to give him a few days off and hopefully that will do the trick."
There is some good news on the injury front for Ottawa as a pair of defencemen – Mark Borowiecki and Christian Jaros – will be returning. Borowiecki missed Thursday's game because of a nasty stomach flu. How’s he feeling now?
"Better," the 29-year-old said with his trademark big smile. "The hazmat suit isn’t on today. It was a rough 24 hours. We'll call it the involuntary cleanse there so I'm fully detoxed now."
Jaros has been sidelined for six games with a hamstring issue.
"It will be nice to have him back in there," said Crawford. "He’s been really good for us this year and he’s been able to play against good players and he's been able to play specific roles for us in mostly a defensive style. We like the way that he plays with power, we like the way that he jumps up in the play, we like the fact that he goes at people really with a lot of speed and, again, a lot of power. He plays a power game for a defenceman and still has a lot of upside. He’s been one of the guys who’s been a bright spot for us here with his play and his overall improvement."
Max Veronneau didn't have much time to soak up his NHL debut on Thursday night, because the 23-year-old Princeton University product had an astronomy exam to prepare for on Friday.
"It went decently well," he said after Saturday's morning skate. "I probably should've studied a little bit more, but I did fine. It was nice to get it over with, because it was on my mind the last week. Now, it’s over and it’s a lot more relaxing. It was one of the easier classes at Princeton so (smile) still it’s not that easy."
The Ottawa native faces another big test tonight against Toronto and is looking forward to his first taste of the Battle of Ontario.
"It's going to be awesome especially since a lot of my teammates back at school, most of them are from Toronto and are big Leafs fans so hopefully I can play spoiler to them … I just know it's a pretty hostile environment, because there are a lot of Leafs fans here."
What does Borowiecki remember about his first taste of this rivalry?
"Oh, geez, so my very first one was actually a rookie tournament game and I remember we had a double knockout. Me and Jamie Devane knocked each other out. I think I had like 20 stitches across my nose so that was my very first Battle of Ontario."
Despite their spot in the basement, the Senators have played the Leafs tough this year splitting two close games in Toronto.
"They’re always a lot of fun, injects a little bit of passion and energy," said Borowiecki. "It's an easy game to get up for and given the situation we’re in right now any little extra boost you can find is always welcome."
After shutting out the Blues on Thursday, Anders Nilsson starts again for the Senators.
Projected Leafs line-up tonight:
Sunday will be a day off for the Leafs.