Maple Leafs vs. Capitals observations: Auston Matthews shines with 5-point game

Now that’s how you start a game.

When the Maple Leafs played in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, the Flyers scored in the opening minute in each of the first two periods. Sheldon’s Keefe’s club did it one day later, as Auston Matthews scored just 16 seconds in and William Nylander followed suit with a goal in the first minute of the second. Alex Ovechkin and Connor McMichael each scored in the second, but Toronto quickly responded with a goal of its own each time to maintain a two-goal lead after 40 minutes.

The start of the third was a disaster, as Toronto wasted two early power plays before leaving Ovechkin all alone for his second of the game. However, the Leafs responded immediately once the Capitals got within one, and goals from Bobby McMann, Tyler Bertuzzi and John Tavares capped off a 7-3 victory. Washington simply could not match up against Toronto’s top six.

Three stars

1. Auston Matthews

Matthews failed to score in back-to-back games entering play, and he wasted no time ending that streak. Max Domi set him up in the slot on the opening shift, and Matthews capitalized:

He wasn’t done there. Just three minutes after Ovechkin pulled the game within one, Matthews fired a wrist shot from the point that found its way through:

It appeared like Matthews completed the hat trick at the end of the second, but the goal was disallowed after Bertuzzi was ruled to be offside well before the puck went in. However, Matthews did find a way to pick up three assists, including a gorgeous one to set up Bertuzzi:

2. William Nylander

Nylander’s opening shift of the second period was a complete game-changer, as he broke up a two-on-one on one end, then flew down the ice and fired a gorgeous shot past Charlie Lindgren:

The goal gave his team a two-goal lead and put Nylander in the goal column for a fourth consecutive game. He changed the momentum again in the third, as one minute after Ovechkin pulled the game within one, Nylander responded by setting up McMann:

3. Max Domi

Connor McDavid is the only player in the league with more five-on-five assists per minute than Domi this season. Domi may not be Mitch Marner defensively, but he did well to set up Matthews for the game’s opening goal. He picked up his second assist when Matthews’ point shot beat Lindgren in the second, then picked up a third by setting Jake McCabe up for a deflection. He wasn’t done there, as he picked up a fourth on Bertuzzi’s goal in the middle of the third. It’s nice to see him playing well on the wing after he struggled there to begin the season.

Toronto’s stars take advantage of a weak opponent at five-on-five

The Capitals are simply not a good team at five-on-five. Washington entered play ranked 25th in the NHL in five-on-five expected goals percentage, and four spots worse in terms of their share of actual goals. The Capitals simply don’t have the same star power or centre depth that they used to, and outside of the first period, they were simply outmatched by Toronto’s top six. Tavares eventually added a power-play tally, but Toronto’s first six goals were all scored at five-on-five, and all six were from the top two lines. Matthews and Nylander just flat-out dominated.

Keefe shakes up the defence pairs

T.J. Brodie was a healthy scratch after struggling in back-to-back games, and Conor Timmins returned to the lineup for the first time since Jan. 24. Keefe opted to keep the duo of Joel Edmundson and Timothy Liljegren together, so Timmins played with a stay-at-home defender in Simon Benoit. With both of Morgan Rielly’s common partners out of the lineup in Brodie and Ilya Lyubushkin, the Leafs experimented by pairing him with McCabe.

The Leafs gave up their fair share of chances in the first, particularly for a period with no power-play chances, but the Capitals did not generate much of anything when Toronto’s top pair was on the ice. It was the Edmundson and Liljegren pair that got off to a slow start, but everyone played fairly well once the second period started. McCabe scored his seventh of the season, and he’s turning out to be an awfully valuable player for this team. He looks comfortable on the right side, and acquiring him at last year’s trade deadline for three playoff runs at a $2 million cap hit looks like a steal. I expect at least one of Brodie or Lyubushkin to return on Saturday night, so it will be interesting to see if Keefe opts to keep McCabe with Rielly.

Penalty kill continues to be a major problem

There’s a clear top six in the Eastern Conference, and the Leafs have the worst penalty kill of this group by a wide margin. Toronto’s penalty kill had surrendered a goal in four straight games prior to ending the streak against the Flyers on Tuesday, but even Philadelphia’s terrible power play had no trouble moving the puck effectively. Toronto’s problems continued Wednesday, as Ovechkin scored on Washington’s only power play.

The Leafs are currently without Marner and Calle Järnkrok up front, and both Brodie and Lyubushkin were out of the lineup on the back end. However, after letting plenty of strong penalty killers walk this offseason, the Leafs made this area a focus at the deadline. I hate to sound like a broken record, but when you’re set to play two of the Florida Panthers, Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning in the opening two rounds, you better figure out some answers for your penalty kill.

Final grade: A

Matthews scored seconds after the opening faceoff, but the Leafs were otherwise just OK in the first. Toronto’s best forwards were its best forwards in the second, as Nylander scored a beauty and Matthews would have completed the hat trick if it wasn’t for an offside challenge. It wasn’t a perfect period, as the Leafs surrendered two goals, but it was clear which team played better.

Toronto’s power play struggled to start the third, and the Capitals shouldn’t have been able to get within one. However, the Leafs simply looked like a team with far more talent. Matthews ended up with five points, and if it wasn’t for an offside challenge, he would have had six. Domi picked up four assists, while Nylander and Tavares each racked up three points. Washington looked like a rebuilding team rather than a playoff contender.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Heading home to play Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday at 7 p.m. on Hockey Night in Canada.

(Photo: John McCreary / NHLI via Getty Images)

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