Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 13, 2016

An Awesome Night For Auston

The centennial season of the National Hockey League began Wednesday night, and fittingly the Toronto Maple Leafs took to the ice as one of the eight teams skating on the new season’s first evening. The NHL came into being in 1917 when owners of four of the five teams in the old National Hockey Association had a falling out with Eddie Livingstone, owner of the NHA’s remaining franchise, the Toronto Blueshirts. The organizers of the fledgling league wanted a team in Canada’s second largest city, so they awarded a franchise to the owners of the Toronto Arena Company. Known locally as the Toronto Arenas or sometimes simply the Torontos, the team didn’t become the Maple Leafs until new ownership came along in 1927; but by any name the Toronto club is one of just two current league members (along with Montreal) that has been part of the NHL from its beginning.

The Maple Leafs will host the Detroit Red Wings in the Centennial Classic on New Year’s Day, an outdoor game commemorating the league’s and the team’s shared anniversary. A variety of other celebrations are planned throughout the season, starting with this week’s unveiling of three new statues of former greats, bringing to ten the number of likenesses in Maple Leaf Square outside of Air Canada Centre.

But for all the planning that’s gone into the scheduled festivities, it’s very possible that nothing will be as dramatic or exciting as what took place in the very first game of Toronto’s hundredth season, on the road against the Ottawa Senators. It was the first NHL contest for 19-year old Auston Matthews, the top pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

Matthews grew up in Arizona, not generally regarded as a hockey hotbed. After attending some Arizona Coyotes games as a child, he started skating at the age of five. Against the long odds of living in the desert southwest he became a star on the U.S. National Development Team, leading his squad to gold medals at both the 2014 and 2015 World Championships for players under the age of 18. Too young by two days to be eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Matthews passed on the usual routes of either college hockey or the Canadian junior leagues. Instead he turned pro and signed a one-year deal with the ZSC Lions of the Swiss National League A. He finished last season as the Lions’ second leading scorer and won the league’s Rookie of the Year Award while finishing as runner-up in the balloting for Most Valuable Player.

While Switzerland’s top hockey league won’t be mistaken for the NHL, playing in a professional league surely made the transition to skating faster and hitting harder with his new Toronto teammates easier than coming from the collegiate ranks. In fact against Ottawa, Matthews made the transition look effortless.

Just over eight minutes into the contest, the Senators were unable to clear their zone. After a scrum in front of Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, Toronto’s Zach Hyman carried the puck behind the net, then slid a quick pass out in front. Matthews was in prime position, and shot the puck past Anderson before the goalie had a chance to react. On his first NHL shot this year’s top draft pick had his first NHL goal. The Senators scored twice in just over three minutes to take a 2-1 lead; then with a bit more than five minutes remaining in the first period Matthews went back to work. This time he picked up the puck in the neutral zone, deked his way around three different defenders, and buried the puck in the back of the net with a one-timer that tied the score. Less than ninety seconds into the middle period, defenseman Morgan Rielly carried the puck down the left boards then sent a perfect centering pass to Matthews who fired it past Anderson for the hat trick.

With three goals on as many shots the rookie phenom became the fifth player in NHL history and the first since the Rangers’ Derek Stepan in 2010 to notch a hat trick in his first game. Even the Ottawa fans sent hats sailing onto the ice, while Matthews’s parents beamed from their seats, his mother’s eyes glistening with tears of joy.

Still Matthews wasn’t through. With just a few ticks of the clock left in the second period and the score again tied at 3-3, he worked a perfect give and go with fellow forward William Nylander on a two-on-one rush. Nylander broke right, Matthews swung left and took the return pass from his teammate, quickly elevating the puck past Anderson for his fourth goal and a place in the NHL’s history books.

As amazing as Matthews was, the game was also a reminder of just how far the Maple Leafs have to go as a team. The Senators answered every one of his goals, and eventually won the game in overtime when Kyle Turris got a step on Matthews, took a pass and buried the game winner. In the end the historic night for a Toronto player went down as an overtime loss for his team.

One point for the OTL is better than none, and it could be argued that Toronto is off to a better start than last year, when the Maple Leafs lost their first two games in regulation and ended October with a 1-7-2 record. Toronto won the right to draft Matthews by finishing at the bottom of the standings last season. Toronto’s 29 wins and 69 points were fewer than any other team, and its minus-48 goal differential was better than only Vancouver’s minus-52. As much as the Maple Leafs are bound up in the long history of the NHL, the team’s glory days are, well, historic. Toronto has made the playoffs just once in the last eleven seasons. The Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup thirteen times, but the last of those was in 1967, and the team hasn’t been back to the Finals since.

For all of his first game glory, it’s unlikely that Auston Matthews can resurrect the Maple Leafs all by himself. Hockey is too much of a team sport for one player to carry that much weight. Just ask fans of the Washington Capitals how many Stanley Cups their team has won since Alex Ovechkin came to town. But that takes nothing away from a night that the kid will remember for the rest of his life. He showed remarkable poise and maturity after the game, more interested in taking responsibility for not keeping up with Turris on the decisive overtime goal than crowing about his record-setting scoring night.

Toronto is likely still a few pieces away from even returning to the postseason, much less contending for a championship. Still with the future Hall of Famer Mike Babcock behind the bench, and Matthews bringing speed and excitement to the ice, the flickering flame of hope is renewed as the Maple Leafs begin their one hundredth campaign. Of course to fan that flame into a fire, the rookie will have to step it up. He’ll take the ice against Boston Saturday in the Maple Leafs’ home opener having not netted a goal in more than twenty minutes of game time.  It’s by far the longest scoring drought of his NHL career!

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