TORONTO — The in-game camera focused on the Maple Leafs' entrance until Auston Matthews jumped on the ice for pre-game warmups, then it followed him as he circled around Toronto's net to emphasize that yes, the young superstar was going to play.
Matthews had left the ice early at the morning skate Monday. Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said the young centre would be a game-time decision for Toronto's home game against Vegas in the evening due to "soreness."
After Matthews went to the locker-room, right-winger William Nylander moved over to centre the top line at practice and likely would have done so again during the game. But the backup plan was unnecessary as Matthews hit the ice at Air Canada Centre with his teammates as Toronto hosted the expansion Golden Knights for the first time.
The 20-year-old Matthews has 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in 15 games this season. He was selected first overall by the Maple Leafs in last year's draft and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year in 2016-17, scoring 40 goals with 29 assists.
Entering Monday's games, Matthews was fourth in the league in goal scoring.
Vegas (9-4-0) is off to a hot start in its inaugural season, having won six of its past 10 games heading into the Toronto matchup. The Golden Knights, who are in second place in the Pacific Division, had some momentum after a 5-4 win in Ottawa on Saturday.
The Maple Leafs (8-7-0) entered play on a two-game skid with losses in six of their past 10 games, good for third place in the Atlantic Division behind Tampa Bay and Ottawa.
"We've been in our own way, I really believe, the last five or six games," said Babcock. "Not playing without the puck right, turning over the puck. We took a run at that and I think we've proven to ourselves we can't win like that, so let's fix it."
Nylander, in his third NHL season, has three goals and eight assists in 15 games with a plus-9 rating. A natural winger, he has some experience at centre with the Toronto Marlies, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Maple Leafs.
"I'll be ready to play centre if I need to, but I don't think I'll have to," Nylander accurately predicted before the game.
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