BOSTON — Auston Matthews has been characterized as just a regular-season star — one criticized for flaming out right when the Toronto Maple Leafs hit the playoffs.

Consider Matthews to have issued a rebuttal.

The scene: Late in Game 2 of Toronto’s first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Boston Bruins on Monday. The Leafs were trying to avoid falling into a 2-0 series deficit, with the score tied 2-2 late in the third period. The rowdy crowd at TD Garden was taunting the visitors with electrified chants of “U-S-A … U-S-A” when Matthews — arguably the greatest American-born hockey player in the league today who happens to play for an iconic Canadian franchise — saw his opening.

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Like a running back sprinting for daylight in the open field, Matthews charged into the Bruins’ zone, gloved down a pass from linemate Max Domi, juked defenseman Charlie McAvoy and bamboozled goaltender Linus Ullmark with a perfectly placed top-shelf strike.

In a blink, Matthews’ eventual game winner took Toronto from the emotional brink to a soft landing en route to a 3-2 victory. The Leafs left Boston with home-ice advantage in a best-of-five series against the opponent with whom they hadn’t even held a lead in their previous five meetings.

Matthews was the opposite of invisible. He was impossible to ignore. Now, more than ever, is Matthews’ time to shine.

“You look at his goal [Monday] — that was a nothing play,” Bruins captain Brad Marchand said. “And he got a game-winning goal off of it. Even when you think you’re tight on him, you’re not tight enough. But that’s the thing about the best players; they find a way. And that’s what he did.”

IT’S BEEN A JOURNEY for Matthews finding his way to blossom in the postseason. Prior to Monday, he’d recorded 22 goals and 44 points in 51 playoff tilts, but hadn’t registered a goal in his previous six postseason appearances. And that is from a player who’s won three Rocket Richard Trophies as the league’s top goal-scorer, including a career-best 69-goal campaign in 2023-24.

Make no mistake — the numbers aren’t bad. But for whatever reason, Matthews hasn’t translated consistently to being the same difference-making threat in the playoffs that he’s been in the regular season.

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Perhaps that ends now, with Matthews apparently letting go of the pressure and allowing his skill to take over.

“It’s just happening so fast, you don’t really have time to think,” Matthews said of teeing up his game winner. “It’s honestly kind of instincts, and just trying to make the right play.”

It wasn’t just that momentum separating Matthews from the pack. He assisted on both Leaf goals (courtesy of Domi and John Tavares on the power play), had a game-high eight shots on goal, six hits, and at one point made a potential game-saving move in the crease behind goaltender Ilya Samsonov to keep a puck out of the Leafs’ cage.

Matthews is not above the fray. He’ll do the dirty work. And that commitment at both ends of the spectrum — offensively and defensively — is what emerged most in Game 2, and caught Boston’s full attention.

“What I’ve been impressed with him about is how tenacious he’s been on pucks, how tenacious he’s been on the forecheck,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery said. “He’s been relentless with his work ethic. We can’t let him get in behind us. That’s the most dangerous man on the ice; you have to be tighter [with him]. But he’s the most dangerous man on the ice because he’s earned it.”

“Even when you think you’re tight on him, you’re not tight enough,” Brad Marchand said of Matthews. “But that’s the thing about the best players; they find a way.” Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Matthews has done it the hard way, bearing the brunt of expectations. It’s been the same narrative since Matthews arrived in Toronto as their No. 1 overall pick in 2016; the Leafs will go as far in the playoffs as Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Tavares take them. The Leafs’ hopes live and die with their Core Four.

Matthews shoulders that burden more than ever. Toronto hasn’t seen Nylander — a 40-goal scorer — in this series yet due to an undisclosed injury (he remains a possibility to return in Game 3). Marner has been dead-quiet, with zero points and four total shots on goal. Tavares is doing his part, but the Leafs’ captain is past his scoring prime.

Matthews, meanwhile, is in the thick of his. He’s the red-hot middle of Toronto’s nucleus, the Leafs’ highly prized, series-defining skater. And that’s for better or for worse.

“He’s world-class in everything he does,” Tavares said of Matthews. “Having the night like he did [in Game 2] was massive for our group. The goal is one thing; it’s obviously special. Not many guys in the world [have] those instincts and the hands and finishing ability. But the competitive aspect, winning battles, fighting for space, using his body — things he does so truly well that sets the standard for us. It was a hell of a game by him and just driving our team.”

THE TRICK NOW is Matthews sustaining the momentum and turning it into something tangible. The Leafs infamously went two decades without a first-round playoff series win until besting the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games last year. Matthews had five goals in the final four games to get Toronto over the line — and then managed only two assists through five games in a second-round flop against the Florida Panthers.

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It’s not enough for Matthews to just light the lamp. His impact must be felt in every phase of the game. Monday’s performance exemplified who Matthews can be at his most powerful. He didn’t make it look easy, exactly. And the Bruins are a smart, opportunistic team that has already shown Toronto they’ll throw every mistake the Leafs make into the back of their net.

Matthews found a way to break through with a goal-scoring finish and an exuberant reaction from a usually subdued Matthews. It could be bigger than a single win. It could be a sign that the best of Playoff Matthews has arrived — and is still to come.

“Auston was all over the stat sheet and in so many regards he’s affecting the game positively for us,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “But for me, the way he worked, where he competed, he was hard, physical, winning puck battles all over the ice. Really good … it’s big-time stuff the way those guys connected in the finish.”