ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- This was going to be the next big stage in the ascending career of Auston Matthews.
A prime-time game on Saturday night.
National television audiences on both sides of the border.
Alex Ovechkin on the opposing team.
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A game at the U.S. Naval Academy, an iconic American institution for a native son like Matthews, who grew up in the Phoenix area.
It was a script worthy of Hollywood.
But reality got in the way.
Matthews, who injured his shoulder against New York Islanders on Feb. 22, will be unavailable to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Washington Capitals on Saturday as part of the 2018 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SNE, SNO, SNP, TVAS, NHL.TV).
But the absence of their best-known player has not phased the Maple Leafs. Led by coach Mike Babcock, Toronto sees this game as an opportunity to showcase the talents of a deep team that features forwards such as Mitchell Marner, 20, William Nylander, 21, Kasperi Kapanen, 21, and defensemen Morgan Rielly, 23, and Travis Dermott, 21.
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"We're not trying to say we don't miss Auston," Babcock said. "He's an elite player and we're a better team with him, without any question.
"In saying that, when you put your sweater on at night, whoever is dressed, in my opinion, we have enough to win and we have to find a way to do it."
On many nights, the Maple Leafs have been able to do just that. With Matthews out of the lineup this season, Toronto has gone 7-4-2.
Following the game against the Islanders, Toronto defeated the Boston Bruins 4-3 at Air Canada Centre. A subsequent trip through the Sunshine State saw the Maple Leafs play well in a pair of games that could have gone either way: a 4-3 shootout loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 26, and a 3-2 overtime loss against the Florida Panthers on Feb. 27.
Having compiled four of a possible six points since Matthews' injury, the Maple Leafs know they can be successful without No. 34.
"Look, he's a big hole to fill," Marner said. "We need him. Don't let anyone tell you we don't.
"But we have a deep team here and guys are stepping up. We think we have a good shot at winning every time we step out on the ice."