This had already become routine.
William Nylander, with his sights fixed on a specific corner of the net, crisply sending seam pass on a diagonal to his preferred target: the stick of Auston Matthews.
But there was nothing ordinary about the latest execution of play-maker setting up sniper in the attacking zone. Never was it so … volcanic.
Matthews exploded once he double-checked the puck was indeed rattling inside the Boston Bruins’ net — and that he hadn’t suffered a Kasperi Kapanen-like fate. Partly because it had a hand in saving the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season with a goal that stood as the eventual winner in Game 3 and helped cut his team’s deficit in the series to 2-1.
And partly because it would quiet his critics following a disastrous two-game set in Boston.
Matthews couldn’t veil his frustration after Game 2 when he was asked if he could have possibly imagined being without a point over a two-game span that saw his direct competition — Boston’s No. 1 line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak — combine for 20 themselves.
His honest response was fodder for trolls and fans rushing to question his leadership qualities alike.
Now who’s questioning his give-a-crap metre?
“It feels like an earthquake in your feet when you score,” Matthews said, opting for a different strand of geology to describe the cathartic moment.
“It’s definitely emotional. It’s exciting.”
Matthews wouldn’t deny that he wanted to prove a point in the Maple Leafs’ return to Air Canada Centre, nor that he felt he did with a goal which — like the thick layer of ice that has coated the city over the last few days — tested the building’s engineering.
But it was head coach Mike Babcock that hinted to the fact that his captain-in-waiting, still just 20, was personally affected by the criticism he received for his showing in Games 1 and 2.
“When you’re my age, social media doesn’t even really affect your life. When you’re his age, it affects your life. You know what people are saying,” Babcock said, later qualifying that his comments were made with a measure of speculation.
“Tonight was a huge weight off his shoulders,” Babcock added. “Instead of thinking about all that stuff, it will come natural to just get playing again.”
It was the right scorer converting at the perfect moment for the Leafs.
Like they had throughout the first two games of the series, the Bruins seem to have an answer for everything again Monday. First it was Adam McQuaid’s blast sneaking under the pad of Frederik Andersen to erase James van Riemsdyk’s icebreaker, the later Zdeno Chara’s goal to wipe out Patrick Marleau’s first postseason marker as a Leaf.
But it was Matthews’ goal, the product of Toronto’s stars exacting a measure of revenge on Boston’s with a sustained bout of possession in the offensive zone, that seemed to instil the confidence his teammates needed to survive the waves of return pressure.
“It was massive for our team,” Mitch Marner said.
Between Tomas Plekanec delivering a positive return with Babcock’s contentious decision to pit him against the Bergeron unit and Freddie Andersen’s exquisite final frame, there are plenty of points to build on now, as the Maple Leafs aim to even up a series they seemed hopelessly overmatched in just a few hours ago.
But it seems nothing inspires hope like the big moments only Matthews can deliver.
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