When they gathered at their west-Toronto practice facility Monday morning, less than a full day had passed since the Maple Leafs kept their win streak alive with a thrilling, 5-4 overtime victory over Detroit at the NHL's Centennial Classic outdoor game. That meant the buzz and joy of the event was still fresh in their minds and bodies, and every member of the organization was still allowing the majesty of the moment to sink in.
"It was amazing," defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "Being part of that game was something that I'll always remember, and when you come out on the winning end of it, it's that much sweeter. That's a great memory that we all have to keep for a long time, and we had our families in town, so it's a lot of fun."
"It was a big win for our team…and a real nice celebration of hockey the last three days," added head coach Mike Babcock. "For our team, since I've been here, that's the best opportunity we've had, and so that's obviously a real positive thing. Having success was positive as well, but just the overall celebration of hockey was great."
Staged on the grounds of the historic Exhibition Place, the Centennial Classic celebrations were more than just a game - on Saturday, the alumni of the Wings and Leafs squared off in front of a throng of passionate fans from both Original Six franchises - and were as much about paying tribute to the power the sport has held on Torontonians for more than a century now. The Leafs' storied past was alive and interacting with the present just about everywhere you looked, and it did not go unnoticed by the current crop of Leafs, who improved their unbeaten streak to five games with Sunday's win.
"It was a pretty amazing experience for all of us," said winger Matt Martin. "The day wasn't too cold, it seemed like the perfect building for it, it was nice out there for the fans, and it turned out to be a hell of a finish."
Ah yes, about that finish: the Leafs didn't want the game to be that much of a nail-biter, especially considering they'd wiped out a 1-0 Wings lead with a four-goal outburst in the first half of the third period. Detroit managed to fight back and sent the contest to overtime when winger Anthony Mantha scored his second of the day with two seconds remaining in regulation, but that set the stage for another major moment in the burgeoning career of youngster Auston Matthews: the centre stepped up in overtime and netted his second of the game (and team-leading 20th of the season) to give Toronto the win - and on Monday, Matthews couldn't help but rave about the feeling that overcame him in the immediate aftermath.
"You just kind of black out for a second," Matthews said. "It's just so surreal. The crowd was awesome, the whole atmosphere, the setting. They did an unbelievable job, and it was definitely a blast to play in front of that many fans."
Matthews' teammates were impressed to see the 19-year-old rookie continue making a massive impact in crucial situations. More importantly, they respect how even-keeled the Arizona native remains in spite of the whirlwind of hype and emotions that are part of playing in hockey's mecca.
"It's unbelievable, really, at his age for him to be dominating the way he is," Martin said of Matthews, who now has 32 points in 36 regular-season games. "Players like him don't come around too often. He's humble and he's very young, but he's quickly becoming a big leader on this team. You can just see it everyday the way he carries himself. He's as grounded and as focused as they come."
With the Centennial Classic in their rear-view mirror, the Leafs now head back to the road this week for games in Washington Tuesday and New Jersey Friday before returning to Air Canada Centre to take on the Montreal Canadiens Saturday. They're well-aware they need to continue working at playing with the same drive and tempo when they have a lead as they do when the score is tied or they're trailing, but they're also feeling good about their determination to find ways to win.
"(There were ) a couple games that we probably didn't want to put into OT, but I think that's just part of us being a young team, and learning from it," Matthews said of Toronto's current win streak. "We've won five games in a row, so we definitely want to keep this going and we want to get better. We want to play a full 60 minutes, and not just hand games away and then have to fight back. We want to continue to be a resilient group."
The Leafs also will be taking their fathers on the road with them this week - an annual event that neither the players nor their dads take for granted - but they'll be reminiscing about the Centennial Classic for quite some time.
And they're grateful to be working for a franchise that enjoys so much support and can boast of such tremendous history.
"You meet all the guys that have paved the way for us, all the guys that are still such a big part of this community in Toronto," Matthews said of getting to know former Leafs this past weekend. "It's definitely an honour to meet all those guys."
"The Maple Leafs have been a first class organization since Day 1, there's no question about that," added Rielly. "But since I've been here, every year it seems like they find a new way to impress. We're just all very proud to be a part of this organization, because of events like (Sunday) night and how special that was to all of us. We all feel very lucky to be here."