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Wanted or not, budding Matthews-Laine rivalry matters for the NHL

Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine may insist there’s no rivalry between the two standout rookies, but tightly-contested bouts between the two each year is just what the NHL needs.

Before the two front-runners in one of the more exciting Calder Trophy races in history faced off tonight in Toronto, they wanted nothing to do with each other.

Not, of course, in a literal sense, but both deflected any and all talk of how this matchup stoked any rivalry between the two.

“Obviously you guys like to make a big deal out of it but all in all it’s a pretty important two points for each team,” said Auston Matthews, the first to deflect the notion that a game between the two leading rookie scorers should be a reason to draw any sort of interest.

“I think we’re playing against Toronto, I’m not sure. I don’t care. I think the media is just trying to make a bigger deal out of that,” offered the typically dry Patrik Laine​ of the matchup against Matthews.

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As much as these two superstars want to avoid talking about it, Tuesday night offered a glimpse at what this rivalry could become: a back-and-forth, exciting-as-hell 5–4 Maple Leafs overtime win was exactly the kind of hockey you want to see at this stage of the season. Laine notched two goals to tally 30 on the season. With those two goals he becomes just the fourth player in the last 20 seasons to score 30 goals in his first season after being drafted.

And Matthews, not to be outdone, registered three assists on the night to set a Maple Leafs record for most points in a season by a teenager.

And as teams, writers and fans take a more analytically-inclined look at the game, (which, for the record, this writer believes is largely a good thing) watching a game of hockey can sometimes be more of a science than an art form.

That’s fine and probably unavoidable.

But it’s better to not distil the differing personalities, approaches and what these players represent into a statistic, and the meeting of Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews showed that on Tuesday.

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This rivalry, which is apparently what we’re calling it, is linked only in draft year: Matthews went first overall last year and Laine went second. Both have adapted to the NHL incredibly quickly, as Laine has 30 goals and 52 points through his first 55 games while Matthews has 28 goals and 52 points through 59.

And that’s where the similarities end.

This rivalry is more about the differences than the similarities. The NHL seems hell-bent on selling teams and constructing rivalries that way instead of selling players, even if the rivalries are equally as manufactured.

The game of hockey, at least at the NHL level, is void of personalities compared to other leagues. Teams control the message more than ever and players have the personality beaten out of them long before they’re even drafted. Yet as these two players raise their game, and the more the hockey world pushes a Laine-Matthews rivalry, the more we could end up seeing from these stars.

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Laine and Matthews may fight it, but in just two meetings this season they’ve given hope to those who want to see Wayne-Mario or Sid-Alex type rivalries re-emerge.

There’s a difference, first and foremost, in playing style: Matthews plays a normally composed game, controlling the center of the ice and scoring just as many ugly goals from near the net as he does electric goals, as he did on Sunday against Carolina.

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Some nights Matthews won’t dominate the highlight reel but will change the game nonetheless, as he did on Tuesday with three assists.

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said his trust level in Matthews between the beginning of the season and now is “night and day.”

Jets head coach Paul Maurice lauded the play of Laine post-game, calling him a “special player.” And he is just that. His goal to tie the game in the first period was classic Laine: an unstoppable one-timer from close to the face-off circle.

An Ovechkin-esque winger with an improbably good shot or a Toews-type calm and cool leader? Pick your fancy. Either way, everybody that loves exciting hockey wins.

There’s the difference in the city they call home: Toronto, the flash-first self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe that often draws the ire of the rest of the country. And Winnipeg, a tough-as-nails city that is as close as Canada gets to having a typical Midwestern town.

That comparison will only increase if these two young teams follow through on their hopes to become consistent winning teams in the future.

“Obviously for the people in Canada, they’re hoping there’s real good teams in Canada so they get to watch hockey in the spring,” said Babcock. “It’s important. So, the better players you have, the better chance you have to have that.”

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Perhaps the biggest difference between Matthews and Laine, however, is the personalities they present to the hungry media. And both were on display before the game as each player scrummed with the media for much longer than normal, even if they didn’t buy into the idea of a rivalry between them.

“They’re a different team now. And we’ve come a long way,” said the normally reserved and focused Matthews. He was being asked about the only other meeting between the Leafs and the Jets this season, which also finished with a thrilling 5–4 OT result, that time for the Jets.

“It’s just two games against Toronto this season. I think it’s already a good thing. I think the media will probably make a big deal out of this, the comparisons and all kinds of stuff. I don’t have to think about that. I’m just thinking about my game and how I can improve my game,” offered Laine, whose confidence could be considered brash to anyone that’s only ever watched hockey.

These constructed rivalries matter because the NHL regular season is long. Too long, probably. Bringing together players like Laine and Matthews and discussing them at length, even though they themselves might not buy into the talk, gives weight to out-of-conference games.

The Jets and the Leafs will only face each other twice a season. With Laine and Matthews in the fold, you have to wish it was more than just that.