Here are five takeaways from the Maple Leafs' 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators Wednesday at Canadian Tire Centre:
Matthews sets modern-day record in NHL regular-season debut. Along with teammates Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev, rookie centre Auston Matthews was competing in his first regular-season NHL contest, and to say he had a memorable debut is an understatement in the extreme. The 19-year-old set a modern-day league record by scoring four times in his first game - twice in each of the first two periods - and helping his team to their first win of the year.
Of course, Matthews isn't going to produce that incredible amount of offence every night and it's unfair to expect him to carry the team on his back, but this was a magical evening where he benefitted from a combination of hard work in all zones, solid play from his teammates, and fortunate puck bounces. With his parents happily looking on from the Canadian Tire Centre stands, Matthews gave everyone in Leafs Nation a night that won't be forgotten.
Defensive zone play still a work in progress for Leafs. Matthews' first goal of the night gave Toronto a 1-0 advantage at the 8:21 mark of the opening period, but the Senators stormed back to take the lead with two goals in the next three minutes to take a 2-1 lead. Matthews' next two goals (at 14:18 of the first, and 1:25 of the second) put the visitors back on top, but Derick Brassard's first goal as a Senator pulled Ottawa even at the 17:52 mark. And although Matthews scored his record-breaking fourth with just three seconds remaining in the middle frame, the Sens evened the score at four goals apiece on Kyle Turris' first of the season at 6:45 of the third period.
The Buds had lost veteran blueliner Matt Hunwick early in the game after a hit from Senators winger Chris Neil, but that can't serve as an excuse for some of the defensive breakdowns the Leafs experienced Wednesday. They've got a young defense corps, but Toronto can tighten up their play through the neutral zone and in their own end, and that includes the play of goalie Frederik Andersen.
Despite pushing Sens with quality possession and pressure, power play prowess not there for Toronto. The Leafs used their speed and puck poise to keep the Sens on their heels for much of the game, and Toronto outshot Ottawa 38-29 through the end of regulation time while forcing the Senators into giving them four power play chances. Unfortunately, the Buds were unable to convert on any of the four man advantages, and the Sens pulled out the overtime victory when Turris scored his second of the night just 37 seconds into the extra frame.
Granted, Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson was stellar a number of times in keeping the Leafs from running up the score, but the NHL remains a league in which you need your special teams to be functioning at high levels, and on this night, Toronto's power play unit was not at its best.
Marner, Zaitsev also look good in first regular-season NHL game. Although Matthews made headlines on the scoresheet, Zaitsev and Marner both looked like they belonged at the NHL level as well. Zaitsev amassed 23:57 of ice time - second only to fellow blueliner Morgan Rielly (25:45) on the team - and had three shots on net; and Marner logged 17:36 - second only to Matthews (17:37) among Leafs forwards - while finishing tied with Matthews for the team lead in shots on net, with six.
All things considered, it was an impressive night for Toronto's youngsters, and an encouraging harbinger for the months and years ahead.
We can't forget about Matthews' linemates. It wasn't only a good night for the Leafs' first-timers club - Matthews' linemates, wingers Zach Hyman and William Nylander, also chipped in on offence: Nylander registered his first two assists of the season, while Hyman played his typically hard-nosed style and added an assist of his own.
The trio clearly have chemistry, and though Nylander and Hyman are much more familiar with each other thanks to their full season with the Marlies last year, Matthews has the puck sense and vision to complement what they bring to the table. It's thrilling to watch them with the puck, and as they learn to hone their all-around game, they have the potential to evolve into a fearsome line.