“I know, for him, it’s exciting,” Tavares said. “He grew up here. It will always be home.”
Tavares recalled what it was like for him to return to Toronto in his young days with the New York Islanders. “It’s a thrill. Family and friends get to watch you live your dream of playing in the NHL. A lot of people really contributed to that. So to have them come to a game where you grew up, it’s nice to share what it’s like to play in the NHL.”
By a fortunate turn of the schedule-maker, the Leafs have turned this trip to Arizona into a mini break. They’ll stay here Sunday — a team golf outing is planned — and practise here Monday before departing for St. Louis for the finale of their six-game road trip Tuesday.
“It’s way better being here than Toronto right now, nicer weather,” Marner said. “It’s great for him. I know he looks forward to this game, coming home and seeing family. Lucky enough we get a couple of extra days here.”
Marner says he is impressed with Matthews’ leadership.
“He’s grown off the ice as a leader, in our locker room and in the community,” Marner said. “On the ice, he’s the same player. Sometimes when we need a big goal, we can rely on him, a guy that every shift can go out there and make something happen.”
It’s been an eye-opening trip. And it probably hasn’t surprised many that Matthews has hit his stride offensively just as the date he long ago circled on his calendar has arrived. The key, according to both Matthews and Leafs coach Mike Babcock, has been his skating.
“I feel like I’m skating a lot better this year, getting up and down the ice, utilizing my body,” Matthews said. “That’s a big thing that Babs harps on me for. I agree with him.
When I’m skating and moving, it’s pretty hard to defend. Especially the three of us, we’re big bodies — myself, Kappy (Kasperi Kapanen) and Patty (Marleau) — and when were all moving, it’s kind of tough to defend.”
Matthews missed 14 games with a shoulder injury and, like William Nylander, needed some time to round back into form. He seems to have found that form lately, with a certain level of encouragement from his coach.
“I don’t know if I’ve been on him,” Babcock said. “What I said to him when I met with him a while ago, I just showed him a bunch of clips, good and not good … I said, ‘What do you do when you’re good?’ ‘I skate.’ So he decided that’s what it was. I’m encouraging him to do that.”
Matthews went into Saturday’s contest with six points (three goals, three assists) in the two previous games, including the 100th of his career. He has been drawing penalties as well by using his speed, and showing that tenaciousness he is known for.
“His engine is getting better and better,” Babcock said. “As time goes on, there’s less space. You’ve go to skate better. Especially if you want to play centre, if you want to be a dominant, two-way centre. When he talks to me, he always talks about that. You’ve got to really skate. It’s not easy. There are lots of nights when you don’t feel it, you’ve got to push through it anyway.”
Of course, when Matthews and his line play better, it makes the Leafs more dangerous. Other teams don’t know whether to focus their defence on his line or the Zach Hyman-John Tavares-Mitch Marner line.
“He’s got to be feeling good about himself and the way he’s playing,” Babcock said. “He’s really skating and the more he skates, the more he has the puck and it goes in.”