TORONTO – Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs arrived in casualwear yet were unable to take care of business — despite controlling the run of play.
The highly anticipated season debut of the NHL’s goal-scoring champ was spoiled at home by a 2-1 overtime defeat Monday against the New York Rangers, their first U.S.-based opponent in more than 19 months.
Artemi Panarin drove the dagger in a wild fourth period.
Mika Zibanejad, who is now blessed with nine years of contract security, got the Rangers on the board first with a blistering wrist shot. The centreman’s blast pinged the netcam so fast, video review was necessary to confirm that the puck indeed beat Jack Campbell on its way in and out.
For the third time in four games, the Maple Leafs dug themselves an early hole to crawl out.
Michael Bunting crashed the crease during a Morgan Rielly attempt early in the second frame to even the score at 1-1.
“Whether he is scoring or not, he is competing at a very high level,” coach Sheldon Keefe said of Bunting, an instant fan favourite.
“He is engaged in the game, and he is engaged in every shift. He wants to score. Of course, everybody wants to score, but it is very obvious — it is apparent — that he is putting himself out there. He is not afraid to go to the areas where a goal is more likely to happen. He is in the fight every day. That is what I like about him.”
There was plenty to like about the Leafs’ second period, as they outshot their American visitors 17-2, but sophomore Igor Sheshterkin was rock solid, making 40 saves on the night.
Thrice the Maple Leafs loaded up their new-look power-play. William Nylander and Rielly clanged consecutive posts in one flurry. Yet the high-skilled unit went 0-for-3 with the man-advantage.
The good news: Matthews didn’t look the least bit rusty, to Rangers coach Gerard Gallant’s dismay.
The top centre was swiping draws, ripping a game-high eight shots on net, and generating chances aplenty.
“It just makes us a deeper team,” Keefe said. “The challenge for us — or the opportunity — is to just continue doing the things that we were doing. You can’t change anything with Auston coming back in. You know what he is to our team and what his presence means, but the individual [performances] and how we play doesn’t change.”