Our Video of Day features 2016 first overall selection Auston Matthews. In the first ever match-up between former American first round picks a year apart, Matthews led the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 win over the Sabres at Air Canada Centre last night. His team-leading 22nd goal gave Toronto their first lead. They came back from a 2-0 deficit scoring four straight before William Carrier closed it to 4-3 with over two minutes left in regulation.
Jack Eichel didn’t register a point and finished minus-one in the one-goal loss for Buffalo. He did lead his team with six shots and had 10 attempts missing the net four times. But on Matthews’ tally, Eichel was stripped of the puck in the neutral zone by Matthews, who turned the play in the other direction. He then got open in the slot taking a centering feed from Zach Hyman and buried a perfect shot top shelf to chase Sabres starter Robin Lehner.
A frustrated Lehner screamed at the bench and broke a stick after being replaced by Anders Nilsson. In truth, he only gave up one bad goal with Matt Martin’s unassisted tally squeaking through him from a bad angle to tie it in the second period. Toronto’s first goal came from Leo Komarov when he was able to deflect a Nazem Kadri shot over Lehner at 32 seconds of the second. That started a three-goal Toronto period finished off by Matthews to put them ahead 3-2.
In the third, James van Riemsdyk was able to beat Nilsson from an awful angle in tight for the game-winner on a power play. Carrier would tally his fourth by batting a Zemgus Girgensons pass out of mid-air past Toronto starter Frederik Andersen with 2:23 left. But that was the closest the Sabres got with Kadri winning a defensive draw with a couple of seconds to spare to clinch Toronto’s ninth win over their last 11. They’re tied in points (50) with the Senators and are one of the eight seeds at the moment in a tight playoff race.
For the Sabres, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane scored in the first. Okposo leads Buffalo with 13 goals and 29 points in 43 games. Kane is second in goals with 12. Eichel ranks third with 10 markers in just 23 games with seven helpers. If you prorate it, he’d probably have about 18 goals if he didn’t miss any time. The 20-year old second-year center is a unique talent who combines superior skating and puck possession with a lethal shot. What I like most is he’s a right-handed shot. Think Jeremy Roenick in his heyday with the Blackhawks. That’s who he reminds me of.
As for Matthews, he does things so quickly. Having gotten valuable pro experience playing for Zurich SC in the Swiss League, he is the real deal. With second overall pick Patrik Laine sidelined with a concussion on a Jake McCabe hit in a meeting between the Sabres and Jets, Matthews has taken a one point lead in the rookie scoring race with 37 (22-16-38) in 42 games. Matthews’ talented teammate Mitch Marner is third with 36 (10-26-36) followed by another Leaf William Nylander (9-20-29) and Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk (8-21-29). Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski is next with 26 (6-20-26) while logging over 21 minutes.
The Calder race is an intriguing one. Matt Murray can’t be excluded. But he’s struggled since returning with the Pens defense depleted. Anthony Mantha is the other interesting first-year player with 11 goals and 11 assists in 29 games. He certainly can finish around the net. It’s worth noting that Rangers rookie Pavel Buchnevich continues to put up points. His goal and two helpers gave him 13 points in 13 games. Had he not missed significant time due to a bad back, he might be in the mix. The Russian is a talented offensive player who makes things happen.
As for the new American rivalry, Eichel and Matthews face off three more times. The next meeting is Feb. 11 at Toronto. The final two are in Buffalo on Mar. 25 and Apr. 3.