Editor's note: This is the latest in our season-long series of stories tracking the young players who competed for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey.
Their season started earlier than most, and if they have their druthers, it will forge on beyond the end of the regular season.
Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly — an American rookie and a Canadian youngster in his fourth NHL season — both participated in the World Cup of Hockey with the very exciting Team North America, a group of young stars 23 years old and under. After helping that team to a 2-1 record, the kids headed to Toronto with the goal of getting the Maple Leafs into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
With 18 games remaining, and the team mired in a slump with just four victories in the past 17 games, neither Matthews or Rielly has given up hope.
"I think if you look at the standings we are right there," Rielly said. "We have 18 games left and we have lots of confidence in the guys in the [dressing] room. We're looking forward to a good month of hockey where we're going to be right in the mix. We've got to win some games and we have to start playing some better hockey, but we all feel like we're capable of doing that and we're going to be right in it until the end."
The Maple Leafs, who host the last-place Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday, are one point behind the New York Islanders for the second and final wild card into the Stanley Cup playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Both teams have played 64 games.
Matthews, 19, leads the Maple Leafs in scoring with 31 goals and 55 points. He is closing in on Peter Ihnacek's team rookie record for most points by a rookie, 66, and needs three goals to tie Wendel Clark's club record of 34 goals in his first season. Ihnacek, by the way, was 25 years old when he set the mark for most points by a Leafs freshman in 1982-83.
Rielly, 22, has three goals and 22 points in 58 games and also has a team-worst minus-21 rating.
Down the stretch
After a miserable western swing in which the Maple Leafs limped home with one of a possible six points, Matthews hopes a little home cooking will help turn things around.
"Yeah, we just want to move forward," said the No. 1 pick from the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. "We have 18 games left — 10 at home — so I think we're in a good spot. We just want to make sure we take advantage of these last couple of weeks and make the most of it to get us into the playoffs."
Whether or not the Maple Leafs actually make it into the post-season, it has become evident moving forward that Matthews and Rielly are two of the key figures on a very young team that has opened eyes around the NHL. And with each passing day it seems more likely that one of Matthews or Rielly will assume the role of captain very soon. The Maple Leafs have not had a captain since Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Ottawa Senators last season.
Matthews said the Maple Leafs have to do their best to minimize mistakes down the stretch.
"You find out pretty fast in this league that there are not many mistakes and when you make on, it tends to end up in the back of your net," Matthews said. "We're going to be playing some good teams and there are important points up for grabs. It is a tight race, obviously, so these games definitely matter."
The Maple Leafs acquired a pair of veterans at the trade deadline — Brian Boyle and Eric Fehr — in an effort to help stabilize the young squad. But if they are to make the playoffs, it is imperative that Matthews and Rielly lead the way