Elvis Costello is quoted as saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This must be how sportswriters across North America feel this evening as they try to properly capture the excitement generated in Auston Matthews’ spectacular four goal debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the rookies’ opening game against the Ottawa Senators Matthews became the first player in the modern era to net four goals in his first game. So instead of trying to capture the excitement let’s just breakdown the goals themselves:
Auston Matthews’ Spectacular Four Goal Debut
The First Goal
At 8:21 of the first period the #1 overall pick used his speed to beat the back-checking Senators forwards into the offensive zone. He came do a dead stop in the slot and waited for teammate William Nylander to deliver a pass. Unfortunately, as soon as the puck arrived so did the Senator Derick Brassard. Matthews was unable to get a shot off because of Brassard’s stick-check. Although he was under pressure he was able to scoop the puck behind the net so the Leafs maintained possession. Next he skated to the left post and somehow found a way to get open between two Senators defenders, without being checked.
When Zach Hyman delivered a soft pass from behind the net Matthews was there for the tap in. The whole sequence took only five seconds but by getting wide open in front of the net twice in that little time Matthews was able to display a presence not expected of a rookie.
The Hat Trick
His soft hands were on display on that goal, too, just as on his 3rd goal of the game, which bore alot of similarities to his first. With defenseman Morgan Rielly streaking down the left boards Matthews again found the empty ice in front of the net. When Rielly delivered the pass Matthews did not panic with a one-timer; he instead corralled the puck, picked his spot, and let a wrist shot go all in one devastatingly quick motion.
These first two goals highlighted a skill crucial all great goal-scorers possess: timing. On each play Matthews trailed the play by just enough that he was able to arrive without being detected by the defense. If he is too soon the defense will cover him up and take away the pass. If he is too late then there is no play at all. Matthews used his speed and awareness to make it look easy.
That speed was on full display on his 4th and final goal of the evening. When the Leafs gained control of the puck Matthews wasted no time in skating straight up the ice. He receives the puck after a nice bounce off the boards and quickly feeds Nylander to set up a two-on-one. Then he takes off. When he crosses the blue line defenseman Chris Wideman has position on him. Matthews simply turns on the jets and blows by Wideman so quickly he takes away any chance the defenseman has to defend the pass. The resulting goal was simply a tap in. It was Matthews speed that turned the play from a two-on-one into a two-on-0. Players that big and fast simply aren’t supposed to have soft hands like this. Matthews is a defenseman’s worst nightmare.
The Spectacular Second Goal
That nightmare was fully realized on Matthews second goal of the night. This is the goal that makes it feel like you are just dancing about architecture if you try to describe it; there is nothing to add. The elite goal scorers all possess an ability to find a hole in the goalie, even when ones not there, in a way that sometimes makes you believe that they are just blessed. Matthews showed that ability when he found the five-hole on Craig Anderson on his sharp angle snipe. The craziest part of the goal is it looked like Matthews totally believed his shot was going to go in.
There was nothing fluky about Matthews performance. His speed, size, hands, pin-point accuracy, they are all real. The fact that he announced his presence in just his first game only makes it more real. Matthews age (19) doesn’t mean anything when it comes to his ability to be one of the best in the league. We are seeing a trend across all North American sports. Young players are coming into the big leagues more physically and mentally prepared than ever before. The teenagers of today have grown up in the performance-era. And their dominance is here to stay.