It’s going to be a one-on-one rush, at least for the fans, when Auston Matthews and Connor Bedard face off on Monday night.
First picks overall and capturing the hockey world’s attention in Week 1 of NHL play, they should enliven a sleepy October on the schedule, maybe lure a few eyes from the NFL’s Monday nighter between the Cowboys and Chargers, or the baseball playoffs.
Matthews, coming off back-to-back hat tricks, needs to score just one to become the first Maple Leaf to amass seven in a three-game span, since Rick Vaive during a late-season spurt in 1986-87.
Bedard of the Chicago Blackhawks could become the eighth player in NHL history to record a point in each of his first four or more career games at age 18 or younger. He’s on a five-game, welcome-to-the-show trip.
Leafs right winger Mitch Marner has had a hand in many of Matthews’ scoring highlights since the latter topped the 2016 draft, as well as meeting Bedard at the most recent NHL awards bash when the presumptive 2023 No. 1 pick was a guest.
“What stands out is just (Bedard’s) skill set and what he does with the puck when he has time and space with it,” Marner said. “He’s an awesome guy, a great family, too. It was really great to shoot the breeze with him a couple of minutes.
“(The media) is not easy to please, a lot of expectations for him, but he’s done great with (the attention). He hasn’t lost himself.”
That said, Matthews has a 300-goal head start on the Western junior star. And John Tavares, a former No. 1 himself in 2009, is coming up on 1,000 points.
Neither player was made available by their teams Monday morning — the Hawks didn’t even hold a morning skate — but Marner said any heater that Matthews gets on is equally exciting for him.
“It’s been remarkable to see,” Marner said of Matthews starting the year as well as only a handful of NHLers since 1917 ever have. “Obviously his scoring ability is top notch. People don’t ask how they go in, it’s how many and it has been great to see him still surprise people with his shot, that side-of-the-net play.
“For me, it’s trying to get him the puck with space and time. If he gets it anywhere around the slot or he kind of circles down, he has a great chance of putting it in the net. For me, it’s finding him in those areas, but at the same time not trying to force it in there too often.”
The Leafs are keeping almost the entire lineup together from their somewhat sloppy home wins over Montreal and Minnesota in which they gave up nine total goals. There will be a change in net, though, with young Joseph Woll making his first start since the team’s second-round playoff overtime loss to Florida last spring.
Coach Sheldon Keefe has tempered his criticism of the team’s overall defensive play, given it’s such an early stage of the schedule.
“In both games, I’ve come away not feeling great because we’ve given up a lot (of goals), given up more chances than we’d like,” Keefe said. “But both times, I go back in there and look at it (on video) and there’s a lot more good I see.
“There have been a lot of breakdowns in our defensive-zone coverage. But we defend our best when we’re fresh, as everyone, but we want to have pressure on the puck and when you’re tired, that breaks down.
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“It’s that and we have guys still getting up to speed (new to the team or on new forward lines) and one little breakdown tends to have somebody else cover and ultimately leaves you exposed.”
New Hawks coach Luke Richardson, himself a former Leafs first-rounder as a Peterborough Petes defenceman, has a record of 1-2 thus far, but Chicago has held the opposition to eight goals. Bedard and Corey Perry have three points each to lead the team.