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Tavares shares special opener with Maple Leafs teammates

Introduced as captain before Matthews scores twice, three rookies, Barrie flourish in Toronto debut

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- John Tavares was savoring a season-opening 5-3 victory against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday when a couple of Toronto Maple Leafs legends came into the dressing room to congratulate him.

Darryl Sittler, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, was Toronto captain from 1975-81. Wendel Clark had the role from 1991-94. Sittler's No. 27 and Clark's No. 17 have been retired by the Maple Leafs.

They wanted to give their best wishes to Tavares, the center who was announced as the 25th captain in Maple Leafs history in pregame introductions. He said he was touched by the gesture and told them what a great team win it was.

"That's so John," Sittler said. "He's all about the team."

Tavares did have a point. If ever there was a complete team victory, this was it.

It was about Tavares, who received a standing ovation when he skated onto the ice as captain for the first time.

Video: OTT@TOR: Tavares named Maple Leafs captain

It was about Auston Matthews, the center who scored two goals and became the fourth player in NHL history to score in each of his first four season openers, joining Dit Clapper (1927-30), Dave Andreychuk (1982-85) and Sergei Fedorov (1990-93).

It was about the three Maple Leafs rookies in the lineup who each had at least a point in his first NHL game. Forward Ilya Mikheyev had a goal and an assist, and forward Dmytro Timashov and defenseman Rasmus Sandin each had an assist.

It was about Tyson Barrie, the former Colorado Avalanche defenseman who had two assists in his Toronto debut.

Add it all up, and there was no shortage of smiles in the dressing room afterward.

Coach Mike Babcock warned that there will be growing pains. Eight of the 20 players dressed by the Maple Leafs against the Senators (Tavares, Matthews, forwards Mitchell Marner, Frederik Gauthier, Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen, defenseman Morgan Rielly, and goalie Frederik Andersen) played in Toronto's 2018-19 season opener, a 3-2 overtime win against the Montreal Canadiens.

"There's no question about it," Babcock said when asked if it was an important night for the Maple Leafs on several levels -- Tavares getting the captaincy, the rookies making their NHL debut, another hot start by Matthews. "I know we're in a hurry. You want instant gratification, that's society today. It's obviously Toronto and hockey. But the reality is you just keep plugging away and doing good things, and good things happen.

"We're still going to have lots of moments this year where you wonder what the heck is going on. But just keep grinding, doing good things, and that's what makes you better."

Video: OTT@TOR: Matthews continues opening

The Maple Leafs, to use Babcock's phrase, were wondering what the heck was going on in the early going.

With the crowd still buzzing after the Tavares introduction, Senators forward Brady Tkachuk silenced it when he scored 25 seconds into the new season.

"Tough first shift," Matthews said. "They score on that first shift and they gain the momentum. We just took a deep breath."

Trailing 1-0 after the first period, Toronto took control of the game with a four-goal outburst to put the game away. They led 4-2 after the second and never looked back.

Matthews has scored nine goals in four season openers but said there is no special formula for that success.

"I try to score goals every game," he said.

Matthews scoffed when it was suggested he might be disappointed at not being named captain. Rielly will be an alternate captain for every game; Matthews and Marner will be an alternate on a game-to-game basis.

"It's a big honor," Matthews said. "I think all four of us look at it as a big honor, big responsibility. So I think, like we've been saying all along, there's lots of leaders in this room. We're just the guys that are wearing the letters."

Babcock said he thinks Tavares' lead-by-example approach can take Matthews to the next level.

"He has a chance to be a generational player," Babcock said. "So now, what can you learn from John? You can learn John is working every day, working harder and winning every puck, working hard in practice. So that's the challenge for our group."

While the media was peppering Matthews with questions, Sandin was taking it all in. The scene was all so surreal for the 19-year-old.

"At one point, I thought I was dreaming," he said. "At one point, I was looking around during the introductions thinking: Can this be for real?"

Video: Matthews scores twice as Maple Leafs down Senators

The normally unflappable Tavares thought the same thing when he was summoned to the office of general manager Kyle Dubas on Monday. He was greeted by his entire family, including 3-week-old son Jace, who was wearing a wee Maple Leafs No. 91 jersey with the captain's letter C on the front.

That's how Tavares found out he would be captain: by seeing his infant boy in a captain's jersey.

"I'll never forget that moment," he said. "It's been an amazing three weeks. To see [Jace] there with it on, to be the one to tell me, was very emotional and really, really special."

Just like Wednesday was for so many of his teammates.

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