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Auston Matthews is The Guy now

Win or lose, the training wheels are off.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

One of the fun things about a developmental year—isn’t it weird to remember that’s what this is?—is watching each little step of progress that the rookies make. Remember Connor Brown being the first internal promotion up the lineup, after starting the year with Matt Martin and Peter Holland? Remember the Nylander-at-4C remedial class Mike Babcock taught for a week or so? Watching Kasperi Kapanen light up the Marlies until he finally earned a call-up, which has paid off in dramatic fashion? This has been one hell of a year.

I don’t know who’ll be the hero tonight. It’s the playoffs, it’s one game, it could go any of a hundred ways. Maybe it’ll be James van Riemsdyk, adding $500K to his next contract, or Tom Wilson, making himself a beloved footnote in Caps history. Matt Martin might go a ways toward redeeming his deal, or Ovechkin might prove (for the billionth time) that yes, he does in fact show up in the playoffs.

But Auston Matthews is The Guy now.

We all knew, from the moment he was drafted, that Matthews was the Leafs’ franchise player. If everything goes according to plan—and I know that’s a hell of an if—Matthews may wind up competitive for the greatest Leaf player of all time. He’s already got as much goal-scoring ability as I’ve ever seen on a Leaf player, and this is as a 19-year-old.

Mike Babcock, though, knew he had a development job on his hands. The draft gave him outstanding young talent, and he had to bring Matthews along without totally throwing him into the fire.

So Babcock played three lines in near-perfect balance. Less than two minutes separated the Leafs’ entire top nine in ice-time in the regular season; Matthews led the team at 17:37, but that was a small edge over the field. Meanwhile, the Nazem Kadri line consistently took the toughest defensive matchups, as Mike Babcock tried to parcel out the right amount of challenge. Remember the Winter Classic, where Matthews faced off against Henrik Zetterberg more than previously? That was a test, one of many. And here we are.

That Auston Matthews has been playing more than in the regular season isn’t at all a surprise (for one thing, this series has had a lot of overtime.) And it’s no shock for a coach to shorten his bench a bit. But Auston has zoomed ahead of everyone on the team. He’s 90 seconds per game ahead of even the star RW on his own line. In addition to all this ice-time, he’s been playing heads up against Evgeni Kuznetsov, who centres one of the most dangerous lines in the league. More and more, Babcock has had a power-play group (the Bozak line), a defensive line (Kadri), and a line whose job it is to win the game on offence.

The leaders in individual scoring chances for the series: Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews (tied with five apiece.) Matthews leads his team in goals and is tied for the lead in points. All of this might be expected, but the trend is clear: the training wheels are off. We’re not just trying to develop Auston anymore. We’re counting on him to lead us to an upset.

This is Auston Matthews’ team.