OTTAWA – This will go down as a “remember where you were” kind of night.
And when was the last time we could say that about anything involving the Toronto Maple Leafs? At least with something positive.
Auston Matthews didn’t just make history with a four-goal performance in his NHL debut on Wednesday, he lifted the spirits of an entire organization and its massive beleaguered fanbase. Afterwards, Mike Babcock labelled it his finest moment behind the Leafs bench “by 10 miles,” – “not even close,” he added – and this was after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators.
“We’re all part of history tonight because we’re here,” said Babcock. “A special player.”
“Has it ever happened?” linemate William Nylander asked reporters before walking to the bus.
Matthews is the first player in NHL history to score four goals in his debut. Just three players in the modern era had previously managed a hat trick in theirs.
They came every which way – on a 2-on-1 with Nylander, from the side of the goal on nice passes from Morgan Rielly and Zach Hyman, and on a ridiculous individual play where he beat four Ottawa players, including two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Babcock.
“It’s pretty crazy,” added teammate Jake Gardiner. “I think everyone was kind of in shock.”
It would make big headlines if it happened at any point of any season during Matthews’ career. But for lightning to strike in his first ever game – with parents Brian and Ema choking back tears in the Canadian Tire Centre stands – ensures it will be talked about in Toronto long after he’s done playing.
And it says an awful lot about Matthews that his first comment to reporters after the game was that he let Kyle Turris break free in overtime on the winning goal.
“That last play was 100 per cent my fault,” said Matthews. “Obviously we came here to win and we didn’t get that done. So obviously just a good learning point for myself and the team. We’ll be ready come Saturday.”
You can bet even the notoriously docile crowd at Air Canada Centre will be as well.
It has been a long time since there was reason for this much hope around the Maple Leafs. And in Saturday’s home opener against Boston, the organization will kick off a centennial celebration designed to celebrate the future as much as the past.
Frankly, this is why you tank in today’s NHL.
Rebuilding on the fly is nearly impossible in a league that has been taken over by the kids. You need high draft picks to succeed, and in Matthews and Nylander and Rielly and Mitch Marner, that is what Toronto has stockpiled while spinning its wheels these last few years.
In the words of Babcock: “Now we have an opportunity.”
Thanks to Matthews, they’ve also sent a message that last year’s unwatchable 30th-place finish is already a thing of the past. Much like the Connor McDavid show in Edmonton, this is going to be must-watch viewing.
What’s stood out most about Matthews, since becoming the first No. 1 overall pick selected by the Leafs in more than three decades, is how even-keeled he’s remained after being dropped into the fishbowl.
He’s less than a month beyond his 19th birthday and yet nothing seems to faze him.
“He’s a man,” said Babcock. “He’s 19 years old, but he acts like he’s 27.”
It was even apparent as he was busy rewriting the NHL record book. His first three goals came on his first three shots. Then he hardly even celebrated after beating Craig Anderson for a fourth time with three seconds left in the second period.
During the intermission, teammates joked that he might want to save a few goals for the games ahead.
“You’re kind of just speechless, honestly,” said Matthews. “As the periods kept going by, you kind of just think to yourself you can’t really believe this is going on. It’s that surreal.”
Truthfully, you wouldn’t even write this kind of story into a movie script for fear that it wouldn’t ring true. Thousands of men have made their NHL debut since 1943-44, and none had ever managed a night quite like this one.
Earlier in the day, Matthews said that he planned to treat it like any other for fear of psyching himself out. It’s a gift that all elite athletes seem to have – the ability to stay in the moment and push away any fear or anxiety – and we’re starting to learn that a teenager raised in Scottsdale, Ariz., possesses that trait.
Obviously, there needs to be a fair bit of good fortune at play to score four times in your first two NHL periods but the second goal Matthews produced was proof that this was no fluke. Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman and Marc Methot – veterans, one and all – each had a chance to keep that play from developing and the rookie plowed on.
A veteran NHL scout suggested that the goal could have been more accurately recorded “No. 34 from 34 and 34” rather than Matthews, unassisted.
“When you see that second goal he scored, not many guys do that,” said Babcock. “We’re fortunate that we have him.”
There was a giddiness about the Leafs despite failing to secure the extra point in overtime. With the infusion of skill, they believe things will be different this season.
Nylander even joked that he told Matthews to go out and get a fifth goal.
Right now, all these players see is possibility.
Before getting changed into his maroon suit and having a quick chat with his proud parents, Matthews posed for photos in the visiting dressing room holding the four pucks he scored with. You can be sure that shot will be hanging somewhere in the ACC before too long.
“I’ll be remembered for one thing, I guess, for a long, long time in Toronto,” said Anderson.
So will Matthews.
If you watched this game you’re likely never to forget it.