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Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine keep focus on winning

Top two picks in 2016 NHL Draft downplay personal rivalry entering Maple Leafs-Jets game

by David Alter and Scott Billeck / Correspondents

WINNIPEG -- The Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets face off at MTS Centre on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; SN, NHL.TV), and that's just the way rookie forwards Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine like it.

There is plenty of excitement surrounding the game with Matthews, the No. 1 pick by Toronto in the 2016 NHL Draft, and Laine, the No. 2 pick by Winnipeg, playing against each other for the first time in the League. But each said he is focused on getting a win for his team, not getting the best of the other player.

"I'm not going to play against him," Laine said Wednesday. "It's Toronto against Winnipeg. It's obviously nice to play against him and see where we are going as players but it's team against team and just a normal game." 

Matthews said practically the same thing Tuesday.
"I think both of us don't really look at it as a comparison," he said. "It's the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Winnipeg Jets. It doesn't go much further there."

Of course, it's not that simple. There is plenty of attention on this game, not just because of where the players were taken in the draft but also because of the way they started the season.

Video: Auston Matthews makes history in NHL debut

Matthews, a 19-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona, grabbed headlines on Oct. 12 when he became the first player in the NHL's modern era to score four goals in his debut. Laine didn't score four times in his first NHL game, but had a goal and an assist against the Carolina Hurricanes to help the Jets rally for a 5-4 overtime victory. 

Through two games, Matthews has four goals, a plus-3 rating and eight shots on goal. Laine has one goal, one assist, a plus-1 rating and five shots on goal in three games. 

Laine, an 18-year-old from Tampere, Finland, went through the NHL Scouting Combine with Matthews, and played against him and the United States in a preliminary-round game at the 2016 IIHF World Championship. He understands why fans and the media are hyping up the game. 

"I think it's always exciting for people who are watching hockey when the first and second overall are playing against each other," Laine said. "We've played against each other a couple times now in the past couple of years. This is the first time playing against him in the NHL so it's going to be an interesting game."

Video: CAR@WPG: Laine snipes first NHL goal on power play

Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock agrees with Matthews' approach of treating the game against Laine and the Jets as one of 82 he'll play this season. But he understands that each player may have extra motivation.  

"You know they're cognizant of what's going on around them, for sure," Babcock said. "But [Matthews] is right; it's one [game], it's the next game you're playing. In saying that, you still want to be better than the other guy. I mean on our team, I know Mitch [Marner] wants to be better than Willie [Nylander]. And you know they all think they're the best guy. I think that's important."

But Laine and Matthews, players who will likely be linked to each other throughout their careers, insist there is no rivalry between them. 

"In my opinion, no," Laine said. "It's just the people watching hockey are talking about the rivalry. I'm not thinking like that. He's an awesome player. He's making his career in Toronto and I'm making mine here. It's a good test for our team."

A test each wants to pass, but for team success, not personal glory. 

"You just [want to] get two points and come out to win," Matthews said.

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