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Auston Matthews ready for NHL debut

Maple Leafs rookie to play first game against Senators on Wednesday

by David Alter / Correspondent

TORONTO -- If the buildup to the NHL debut of Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews has seemed endless, that's because Matthews has been more than keeping busy throughout September and the first week of October.

First, he represented Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. Just before the tournament shifted to the semifinal stage, Matthews joined his Maple Leafs teammates for training camp.

But the wait will finally end Wednesday when Matthews, 19, plays his first regular-season game against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre (7 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports).

"It's exciting," Matthews said. "It's something I've been looking forward to for a very long time. It's coming up pretty quick so I'm pretty excited."

Ever since Matthews became the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, the Toronto fan base has been anxious to see how the Scottsdale, Arizona, native will produce. Maple Leafs management is hoping fans will heed their message of staying the course and accepting a patient approach.

"He's a pro, although a young pro, he knows what he has to do," Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "People should not look and expect too much. You always expect a lot, but expecting too much is not good."

Video: TOR@MTL: Matthews beats Price with PPG

Matthews is expected to debut as Toronto's third-line center with forwards Zach Hyman and William Nylander. Coach Mike Babcock likes keeping players together in pairs; Nylander and Matthews have been spending a lot of time together on the ice through training camp. They were the last two players to leave the ice Monday. Staff at MasterCard Centre, the Maple Leafs practice facility, eventually had to ask them to come off so the surface could be made available for other activities in the building.

"I think we enjoy playing together a lot," Matthews said of Nylander, 20, the No. 8 pick of the 2014 draft. "[We've been] building a lot of chemistry over the course of the practices and the couple of games we've played together. Hopefully we just continue to build off it."

Matthews and Nylander were also the last to come off the ice Tuesday before the Maple Leafs boarded a plane to Ottawa.

"With so many young forwards and Matthews, it will be a very energetic first game, for sure," Nylander said.

Nylander and Hyman have a combined 38 games of NHL experience. Nylander had 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 22 games with the Maple Leafs last season. Hyman, 24, a fifth-round pick (No. 123) by the Florida Panthers in the 2010 draft, had four goals and two assists. 

Babcock typically has had young forwards debut on the wing. Given Matthews' evident talent, he's starting at center. That means more responsibility, including daily defensive meetings with the coach to discuss the line's progress.

All of this is part of the territory for Matthews.

"We can surprise a lot of people," he said. "I mean, we're young, but everybody here is hungry to win and hungry to get better."

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