TORONTO — John Tavares had a look of relief on his face as he wiped the sweat off his brow at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. He had reason to.
Standing in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room after a 3-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens, thanks to Auston Matthews‘ overtime winner, now was the time for Tavares to savor the moment, a memorable snapshot that marked the next chapter of his NHL career after months of hype, buildup and pressure to succeed.
As debuts go, this one met the bill. His first goal and first win in his first regular-season game with the Maple Leafs.
“It was tremendous,” Tavares said. “To have that welcome from the fan base and the city is pretty special. As I’ve said all along, I feel fortunate to have that opportunity. I just want to take advantage of it and give it everything I’ve got. I hope to make them proud and be part of a lot of success here.”
Matthews, 21, was one of the Maple Leafs players who reached out to Tavares while the former New York Islanders captain was trying to decide his future during the interview process prior to free agency. The selling point: the number of young, talented players like himself and Mitchell Marner on the roster whose best years are in front of them.
Tavares, 28, signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1. From that moment on, the expectations of this city soared.
For Matthews, who knows what it’s like to be viewed as a savior by Toronto’s rabid fan base, seeing Tavares beat Canadiens goaltender Carey Price at 18:07 of the second period was a beautiful sight.
“I’m sure he was relieved to kind of get the monkey off his back and just go play now,” Matthews said. “I can’t imagine what he’s gone through the past three or four months, and then all the hype of his first game here.
“I’m so happy for him. He’s obviously a great player and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of that throughout the course of the season.”
Matthews referred to the victory as ugly. Montreal outskated Toronto for much of the game and outshot the Maple Leafs 36-26.
But Tavares and Matthews are difference-makers, and on this night, the Maple Leafs needed them to be.
Tavares (one goal) and Matthews (two goals) accounted for all the offense Toronto would need. In the process, Matthews (2016) and Tavares (2009) became the first set of No. 1 picks from the NHL Draft to score in the same game for the Maple Leafs since Mats Sundin (1989) and Eric Lindros (1991) on Nov. 17, 2005 at the Boston Bruins.
They have become the faces of the franchise, much like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Consider how many games Crosby and Malkin have carried the Penguins to victory when their supporting cast was struggling.
Such was the case with the Maple Leafs on Wednesday.
With the score 2-2 early in overtime, Patrick Marleau flipped a centering pass to Matthews, who scooped the puck over Price’s blocker at 1:01. As Matthews lifted his arms in celebration, the capacity crowd of 19,589 went crazy.
It wasn’t the first time they’d reacted like this. They did so when Tavares skated onto the ice for introductions, then did so again when he scored just before the second intermission.
For Toronto co-owner Larry Tanenbaum, the anticipation to see how far Matthews and Tavares can lead the team is at a level he and the fan base have never experienced.
“This is my 23rd year in ownership of the Toronto Maple Leafs and I have never, ever seen excitement for a coming season like this,” Tanenbaum said. “Hope springs eternal in any sport when you start a new season. But this is unprecedented in terms of the excitement when it comes to Toronto.”
Tavares and Matthews brought plenty of that to Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday. In that regard, they both feel the best is yet to come.