“Matty’s at another level right now.” — Mike Babcock
TORONTO — The puck had only just reached the blade of Auston Matthews’ stick during the first rush of his first overtime shift when a Stanley Cup champion watching from the Scotiabank Arena press box slapped his hand on the counter and verbalized what everyone in the barn knew would happen next.
“It’s over,” he said.
In one smooth motion, Matthews received what he called “a perfect pass” from Patrick Marleau and snapped the puck high and clean past Carey Price, capping off the Toronto Maple Leafs’ ugly opening night victory in the prettiest way imaginable.
“He’s just got a great release. He’s good at pulling it, dragging it and shooting it. He’s got a great, great snapshot,” Price said, after taking a 3-2 loss and giving up his seventh goal to Matthews over seven career matches.
“He’s a heck of a player, and he’s got a great shot.”
That shot. Woo, boy, that shot.
Maybe absence has made Leaf Nation’s heart grow fonder, but somehow that thing that curls and snaps and zings and turns lights red came back even sharper after a summer in Scottsdale.
Matthews struck first to tie the game with five ticks remaining on a power-play off a feed from Morgan Rielly. From the left flank, he lured defender Jeff Petry to his left to use him as a screen, curled the puck to his body and cracked it past Price’s glove.
One of the world’s greatest goalies looked up at the Jumbotron to see in slow motion what he had no chance of catching in real time.
The shot appeared at once beautiful and deadly, and stole the screen. Like a James Bond love interest.
Steven Stamkos is a wizard with the one-timer, Alex Ovechkin hammers pucks like he hates rubber, but Matthews might just possess the most thrilling release since the end of Shawshank Redemption.
“Yeah, you can see it today,” Frederik Andersen said. “That was a hell of a shot, especially on that first goal. He received the pass far out to his left, and to be able to drag it across like that, it’s going to be really hard for goalies to stop. You saw he opened up that whole side for him.”
Call him Mr. Opening Night?
Matthews now has a total seven goals and nine points through first three NHL season-openers.
“Talented players that do the things he does,” says linemate Tyler Ennis, “I haven’t seen ’em score like him.”
And while certainly a helping of God-given ability is involved, Matthews devoted a significant portion of his off-season to fine-tuning that release, strengthening a strength. Perhaps the 21-year-old was using us a screen when he claimed his goal was assists.
“He drops 40 his first year, he’s on pace for 45 last year without the injuries, and he wants to revamp it,” Leafs skills guru Darryl Belfry marvelled on Craig Custance’s The Full 60 podcast.
“This summer we retooled it again. What you have to understand is, even though he was doing so well with great results, he hadn’t maximized his ability. He hadn’t leveraged all his assets.”
Matthews says his stick of choice has remained the same for years — a Bauer Sakic curve with a whippy 80 flex rating — but, by all accounts, his shot has improved in accuracy, pep and movement.
“Everyone’s watching video,” explained Matthews, who went to class on Nikita Kucherov and Jamie Benn highlights. “If you do the same thing over and over again, people are going to catch on.”
So Matthews tinkered with the little details: quick pre-release movements with the puck and his footwork. He’s stuffing a wider variety of arrows in the quiver. He wants options.
“Get the defence thinking more,” Matthews explains.
Deception is the objective, and its effectiveness has garnered both curiosity and admiration from his teammates.
“Every time I see him, his shot’s better,” Mitch Marner says. “He’s tricking goalies all the time. Half the time we always think he’s shooting high and he’ll go five-hole, so he can change it up quick. He’s very good at curling it in close to him and still getting a really hard shot off.
“It’s scary for other teams and goaltenders who have to face that.”
Perhaps we should be surprised that a diehard basketball fan is specializing in trick shots. And perhaps it’s Marleau’s assist count we should be monitoring this season.
“It’s pretty crazy how quick he gets it off,” Marleau says. “When you’re that quick, your shot doesn’t have to be hard — but his is hard.”
Adds Nazem Kadri: “He just changes the angle. As a defensive player, when you’re trying to block a shot, you get in the lane where the puck is, but he drags around feet and sticks and gets that shot off so quickly. That’s the deceptive part of it. And he’s accurate, too.”
Since Matthews’ first opening night, the one where he hit ’em with the four, no player has scored more goals per 60 minutes played or goals at 5-on-5.
Now he’s on the most dangerous option on the No. 1 power-play unit, and the early returns look like a summer well spent.
“I feel like I made some pretty big strides,” Matthews says.