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Young Maple Leafs arrive in Centennial Classic overtime thriller

On the outdoor New Year's Day stage, the Toronto Maple Leafs rose to the occasion.

New Year’s Day is a time to forget. Perhaps to try and forget the error of your ways the night previous, or in a larger sense, the sins of the past. The day is for fresh beginnings.

It was fitting then, that the most prevalent jersey, to the eye at least, at BMO Field on January 1st, 2017 was the freshly pressed Centennial Classic Auston Matthews jersey. The No. 34 sweater retailed for over $200 at concession stands, but given the rookie’s tremendous performance so far this season, it’s easy to see why fans would happily shell out the cash for it.

But if you squinted a little, through the piercing sun that caused opening puck drop to be delayed by 30 minutes, you would see other sweaters: Bolland, No. 63. Schenn, No. 2. Bernier, No. 45. Relics of a time gone by. The sins of the past. The Toronto Leafs of even three years ago, when they last played an outdoor game against the Detroit Red Wings, were a Brendan Shanahan-less group, wandering aimlessly through what appeared like playoff contention but was actually a crumbling façade.

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As the Maple Leafs crept towards the centennial anniversary, also the 50th anniversary of the last Stanley Cup the team had won, that façade broke apart for good. The Maple Leafs were in a bad way: late season collapses lead to a “Scorched Earth” plan to rebuild.

On New Year’s Day 2017, the Maple Leafs showed the hockey world how capable they are of charting their new path.

The Red Wings, once again the Leafs' outdoor opponent, have fallen on hard times and are not dissimilar to the Leafs of the past. Yes, the Red Wings are still riding a 25-year playoff streak, but they have not been serious contenders since the late 2000’s. Today, their roster features an aging core and very few young pieces to build upon for the future. As a franchise, so much of the Red Wings mystique is now tied to the past and those consistent playoff appearances. But as they now sit eight points out of a playoff spot, that playoff streak is in jeopardy. And their long-term chances look even more daunting.

The Wings’ dim future was on full display on Sunday. A 5-4 Toronto overtime win saw four of the Leafs’ goals come from rookies: one each from local products Mitch Marner and Connor Brown and two, including the overtime winner, from 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews.

In front of 40,000-plus fans on a cloudless day, one of the most exciting, yet most erratic teams in the NHL this season arrived on the grand stage. This season, the Leafs have never been taken seriously as contenders and perhaps they still shouldn’t be. Surrendering a 4-1 lead in the third period brought back all-too-familiar memories of the collapsing Leafs of the past, especially when Anthony Mantha tied the game with one second left in regulation.

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But on the ice in overtime, it wasn’t the team’s veterans head coach Mike Babcock went to. It was Matthews and Brown. They connected on the winning goal to release the home crowd’s collectively clenched fists and lift the Maple Leafs above the Red Wings, the very model of consistency.

And now just three points out of a playoff spot, those young players could have perhaps turned the tide of the entire season.

“It was awesome,” Brown postgame. “To be part of that game winner and to be on the ice for it, it’s something me and my family will never forget.”

Brown grew up in Etobicoke, not far from BMO Field, where he played in front of his family and also one of the biggest crowds of his career. The local feel to the Leafs this season is perhaps a big reason why Babcock believes the team is capable of restoring the franchise to “it’s rightful place” in the NHL. Pride in the team has replaced being the butt end of the jokes that used to be common practice in the hockey world. That was evident by the aforementioned Matthews jerseys that littered the BMO Field landscape.

Matthews now leads the NHL in rookie scoring with 20 goals and 32 points through just 36 games. He’s shown an uncanny knack for showing up big when his team needs him the most. He called scoring the overtime winner “definitely one of the best moments in hockey” that he’s experienced.

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“It's pretty special,” said Matthews. “When it's a [Centennial] Classic game, it's a little bigger setting, like you said, a lot more fans, kind of that national stage. For us to come out and get that win was a pretty exciting game.”

The players sat with Maple Leafs legends of the past. There was an uncharacteristically energetic alumni game. A feisty scrap broke out between Leafs wing Matt Martin and Red Wings center, which sparked a seven-goal third period.

Even for those who bear no connection to the Leafs’ failures of the past, including that epic 4-1 collapse against the Bruins in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, righting the wrongs and moving on from history has become a source of inspiration.

“You know, we've got a lot of young guys on our team that are all experiencing this together, and there's still a lot of guys from that team that made the playoffs and had that heartbreak against Boston,” said Marner. “We all want to make the playoffs and obviously go far in them, and we've just got to take it game by game so far.” 

But it’s hard not to believe that, even with a game-by-game mentality, some games can help a team move on from more than just the last.