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Maple Leafs' young guns save the Centennial Classic - and their own bacon

The Maple Leafs showed their age, both in good and bad ways, in the great outdoors, but showed that youth is not always wasted on the young.

If you have any doubts that the NHL is being co-opted, nay downright hijacked, by a bunch of baby-faced assassins, please consider what transpired on the first day of 2017 in the NHL’s Centennial Classic.

In the blink of an eye, the showcase event to kick off the NHL’s 100th season went from being a potential disaster of biblical proportions to a biblical quotation. As in Isaiah 11:6, which ends with the quote, “and a little child shall lead them.” Or in this case, a bunch of little children.

The future path of the Toronto Maple Leafs is, without a doubt, being forged by a core of seven rookie players, led by 20-goal scorer Auston Matthews, the overtime hero in a 5-4 Maple Leaf victory the Detroit Red Wings. And if its first enormous test is any indication, fans of this organization might want to fasten their seatbelts because it promises to be quite a ride. At times you’ll be elated. At others, you’ll want to pull your hair out. Then the kids will do something that will have you jumping with joy.

Let’s face it, the Centennial Classic was an absolute hunk of garbage from a hockey standpoint for the first two periods. The puck was bouncing around like a pinball, nobody seemed to be able to make plays and the game had all the pace of a chess match. Then in the third, when the young players on both teams found their confidence and were no longer in awe of their surroundings, fireworks were the result. On both sides. Consider that Matthews was on the ice for six of the nine goals scored by both teams.

Or as Connor Brown, who gave the Leafs a 3-1 lead in the third period, said when asked whether the young players on the Leafs had sent a message to the hockey world in front of more than 40,000 people and a U.S. national audience on NBC: “We almost sent the wrong message.”

It was almost four years ago that the Maple Leafs blew a 4-1 lead in a huge game, buckling under the pressure against the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the first round before losing in overtime in a result that had an absolutely crippling effect on the franchise. The same thing almost happened in the Centennial Classic, but this time the Leafs prevailed with a group of players that is expected to lead them to better things. And perhaps the best thing about it all was the young guys got the Leafs in all kinds of trouble, then managed to get them out.

“At playoff time in the National Hockey League, you’re either up one or down one,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “You’ve got to love the duress, you’ve got to love the grind, you’ve to love digging in and knowing you’re going to get it done. That was a good opportunity for our team, but we haven’t had those kinds of opportunities.”

And while we’re getting biblical here, Babcock was quick to bring up a little Proverbs 13:24 (“spare the rod, spoil the child”). “I thought that was good and I thought we played well, but once again, it’s 4-1. Get it out of your zone.” And when asked whether anything Matthews does surprises him, Babcock responded by saying: “Well, he’s a good player. He played head-to-head with (Henrik Zetterberg). ‘Z’ had three points, (Wings rookie Anthony) Mantha had three points, so they were good, too, so let’s not get carried away there.”

No, actually, let’s get carried away here. Matthews has the potential to be a great NHL player, the kind of player around who you build a franchise. The overtime goal was his 20th of the season and his 14th in the past 17 games. So he blew it on the tying goal and got sent to The School of Hard Knocks by Zetterberg. That’s not great. But he redeemed himself and, more importantly, Babcock did not nail his young players to the bench for their inexperience and, to the contrary, sent them out in overtime with an opportunity to redeem themselves.

“If you're Naz (Nazem Kadri) or Leo (Komarov) and you’re sitting on the bench and the coach is playing those other guys instead of you, at that time you’re saying, ‘What’s he doing?’ ” Babcock said. “I’m giving them the opportunity. They got two goals in the third. I’m giving them the chance to shut out the game. But they’re right too. Why don’t I just put the veteran guys out? Because they’ve got to learn. We had an opportunity here in a big game and we gave them that opportunity.”

Brown, who said he’s probably logged more time on ice outdoors than any other player on the team, said having a coach who is willing to turn back to his young players after making such an egregious series of mistakes is something that will pay off for the franchise in the long run.

“That’s huge,” Brown said. “It empowers you as a player. For us to know that we can be on for a goal against or even make a bonehead play, then know you’re going back out there, it makes you play better. You don’t want to do those things, but it gives you the confidence to make plays. You’re trying to right the wrong, obviously.”

Yes they are. And so are the Maple Leafs.


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