TORONTO â€” Count Capitals centre Evgeny Kuznetsov as a fan of Auston Matthews.
“I love the way he plays,” Kuznetsov says of the Maple Leafs’ talented 19-year-old. “It’s nice to see when young guys, they come in the league and they play right away the way it should be played.”
Matthews saw plenty of Kuznetsov during Games 1 and 2 of their first-round playoff series in Washington and was largely contained â€” held pointless with five shots. But there are signs the American, who set franchise rookie records for goals and points during the regular season, is poised to break out as the series shifts back to Toronto for Games 3 and 4.
After a quiet, one-shot playoff debut, Matthews got going in the second half of Game 2 on Saturday. Finding speed and space more often, he finished with four shots on 10 attempts. His line, which also includes fellow rookies William Nylander and Zach Hyman, was arguably the Leafs’ most dangerous in the 4-3 double-overtime win.
“I thought as the game went on (Matthews) and (Hyman) really took over,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said afterward.
Babcock will now have control of the matchups on home ice, meaning he can move Matthews away from the dangerous Kuznetsov if he so chooses and also get his pick of which defensive pair the group will see most often.
During Games 1 and 2, the Capitals split duties against the likely Calder Trophy winner between their top pair of John Carlson and Karl Alzner and the secondary duo of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov. Washington’s third pairing of Kevin Shattenkirk and Brooks Orpik isn’t exactly weak, but more shifts against lesser competition (including their third and fourth lines) might just help Matthews emerge.
Interestingly enough, Matthews actually fared better on the road during the regular season (24 goals, 40 points) than he did at home (16, 29). He finished with three points in three meetings with the Caps, but was held to one shot twice.
Their strategy for defending him is similar to “any other highly skilled, intelligent player” and it starts with that old hockey axiom of eliminating time and space.
“But especially space for him,” said Capitals centre Lars Eller, who faced Matthews for less than two minutes at even-strength in Game 2, but could see more of him in Games 3 and 4.
Why space specifically?
Because players like Matthews need only the slightest bit of room to make a defender look foolish. Crowd. Crowd. Crowd. That’s the only way to contain the creative instincts and ability of a player like Matthews, and it worked in the opener.
“There’s just not that much space, not much going at either end,” Matthews said after Game 1, which the Leafs lost in overtime. “You don’t get too many Grade-A opportunities here in the playoffs so you get your one or two a game and you want to make sure you capitalize on them.”
Niskanen, who played for Pittsburgh before he joined Washington, sees some of Evgeni Malkin in Matthews, specifically how handles the puck in tight quarters, how he angles his body to shield it from harm.
“He’s got a good blend of skills I think,” Niskanen said. “He’s not lightning fast, but he’s a really good skater. Strong on his feet. He’s got good reach. I think he’s got a lot of the same type of puck-protection skills that some of the bigger stars in the league have, a (Ryan) Getzlaf â€” those type of skills down around the net where he can protect it, make things happen around the net.”
Part of that, Eller says, is Matthews’ craftiness around the blue paint.
With a “very good mind for the game”, he’ll sneak into soft spots in coverage and time his movements with ace precision to either pounce on a rebound or get open for a quick shot.
Guarding against that means staying close to him and ensuring his stick is tied up.
The Capitals don’t want to give Matthews or his line any “free ones” either and that means protecting the puck diligently when he’s on the ice.
Matthews, though, has also distinguished himself to Washington’s head coach Barry Trotz for his puck-stealing ability. Trotz said Matthews has a quick stick, similar to former Red Wings legend Pavel Datsyuk.
“He’ll get you from behind,” Trotz said. “When you think you’re out of his range, he’s able to get a puck and when he gets the puck he’s going to do some pretty good things.”
Survival for Alzner means will has to beat skill. He thinks his only chance of containing Matthews is by outworking him.
“That’s the main thing because he’s got more talent than I do, he’s got more skill than do â€” so I’m not going to out-skill him,” Alzner said.
Added Eller: “The less he has the puck the better for us.”
Jonas Siegel, The Canadian Press