LAS VEGAS — In the midst of a 10-day stretch most mortals could only dream of, Auston Matthews says he feels fortunate.
It is not by chance that he’s already cleared 100 goals as an NHL player, not with his size and smarts and a deceptive release that keeps goalies guessing. Matthews scored twice in Thursday’s back-and-forth 6-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights, reaching triple digits faster than any other member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the modern era.
They have been a memorable 187 games in blue and white for Matthews, who potted four goals in his NHL debut and has been filling the net ever since.
“He’s one of the best players in the world,” said teammate Morgan Rielly. “He’s my favourite player right now, the way he can shoot the puck. You want to say you’re proud of him, but it’s just what you expect.”
His description of the milestone goal offers a window into his unique mind. It came on a power play with Matthews stationed in his familiar spot in the left circle — a spot where Marc-Andre Fleury had denied him earlier in the evening.
This time, Matthews nearly sent the Golden Knights goaltender tumbling to the ice because of the unexpected way he shot the puck.
“I had kind of a similar look in the first period and I think he kind of just guessed correctly,” said Matthews. “He didn’t really go down, so I thought the second time I would just fire it on the ice and see if he’d do the same thing. Lucky enough, he kind of guessed I was going short-side again and I was able to sneak it in.”
He followed that up with goal No. 101 to go with an assist as the Leafs fought off a couple furious Vegas comebacks in a game they dominated at even strength. No one was more dominant than Matthews.
The Leafs controlled 75 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts while he was on the ice.
“I just think this last three games has been his best three games in a long time,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “He’s really skating and the more he skates, the more he has the puck and it goes in.”
Matthews is well on pace for another 30-goal campaign despite missing a month due to a shoulder injury earlier this season, sitting at 27 through 43 games played.
The future is now in Toronto.
Winning the 2016 draft lottery and the right to draft Matthews was a sign better days were ahead for the Leafs organization. His record-breaking debut and the team’s consecutive playoff appearances were reminders the ascent had begun.
Now with Matthews having signed a $58.17-million, five-year extension last week and scoring at a better rate than every NHLer other than Viktor Arvidsson and Alex Ovechkin, everything seems possible. The Leafs are 36-18-3 — second overall in points percentage, albeit a ways behind the scorching Tampa Bay Lightning — and they’re a matchup nightmare for every team they play.
“The more dominant [Matthews] is, suddenly John [Tavares’] line is playing the way it is, you have two real dominant centres and it makes it hard for the other team,” said Babcock. “He’s got to be feeling good about himself and the way he’s playing.”
Matthews next heads back to Scottsdale, Ariz., where it all began, and a game against his hometown Arizona Coyotes on Saturday.
He wouldn’t mind more chances to play in Las Vegas, where thousands of Leafs fans poured into T-Mobile Arena on Thursday and made it feel like a home game. During his only previous visit here, Matthews recorded his 100th NHL point on Dec. 31, 2017 and he left with another milestone puck this time.
“I like playing here,” he said. “The two times we’ve been here the atmosphere has been unbelievable. The fans are into it. When you’re the opposing team it’s an easy game to get into when the crowd, the atmosphere, the music and everything is like it is.
“It’s like a big party so it’s fun to play in.”
Even an injury to Leafs winger Andreas Johnsson, who hobbled down the tunnel after getting kneed by Brayden McNabb in the second period, didn’t dampen the celebratory mood. After the game, Matthews told reporters that his teammate’s leg injury wasn’t too serious.
Instead, this will be a night remembered for Matthews’ brilliance and his newfound entry in the team record book. Only Reg Noble (1922, 112 games) and Charlie Conacher (1933, 162 games) have reached 100 goals quicker while playing for the Leafs.
“He’s got a lot more to go, but he’s come a long way already,” Patrick Marleau said of Matthews.
“It’s been pretty amazing to see over the last few years the way he can put them in the net,” added goaltender Frederik Andersen. “It’s a pleasure to play with him.”