SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The 37th goal of Auston Matthews’ career came from low in the left circle on a shot that beat Jimmy Howard short side.
Just like his 38th, 46th, 82nd, 83rd and 96th.
Yet it’s not so much where Matthews had scored on the Detroit Red Wings starter that helps illustrate why he’s producing goals at a pace normally reserved for Hall of Famers, but how he’s managed to keep the veteran guessing while whizzing pucks past his blocker again and again.
One of those goals came on a rush where Matthews didn’t even look up while taking a pass and flipping it home in a mesmerizing blur. Another saw him drag the puck in and shoot through the legs of a defenceman in one smooth motion. A couple times he just beat the goalie clean and there’s an explanation for why that happened: Howard couldn’t identify the release point of his shot fast enough to react and make a save.
“It’s quick. It’s definitely quick off his stick,” Howard said recently. “You try to read his hands, watch his blade to see if it’s closed or opened, but he’s so quick at changing that angle by the slightest fraction and then it’s by you.”
In the salary cap era, only Alex Ovechkin and Patrik Laine have reached 100 career goals quicker than Matthews. He got to 101 by scoring twice against Marc-Andre Fleury in Vegas on Thursday night, the 187th game he’s played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
When you adjust for rate, Matthews has the highest goals per 60 of anybody since entering the league — both at even strength and in all situations.
And he’s done it differently than Ovechkin and Laine, both freakishly talented wingers who tend to rack up goals through brute force thanks to hard, accurate shots. As a centre, Matthews searches out seams in the offensive zone and often scores in stride, fooling goaltenders who are set and facing him.
There aren’t too many instances where he’s one-timed home the puck. Instead, he’s more likely to get the goalie moving on his own — or freeze him in place — by disguising the angle and trajectory of his shot.
“It’s one of those where you don’t know when it’s coming or how hard it’s coming,” said Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson. “I think you’ve just got to be ready for anything. He’s the type of guy that you might expect him to pass three out of four times and that one shot he takes, you’re just not expecting.
“Or maybe you’re expecting a shot and he passes.”
Matthews, naturally, has done most of his damage against goaltenders in the Atlantic Division — scoring nine goals against Anderson (including four in his record-breaking NHL debut), seven against Montreal’s Carey Price and six against Howard.
The pair of goals he scored against Fleury were the first he’d gotten by the Golden Knights star and No. 100 came on a low shot that completely fooled him. It also offered a window into the kind of information Matthews is processing during split-second decisions in the offensive zone.
“I had kind of a similar look in the first period and I think he kind of just guessed correctly,” Matthews explained. “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.”
That brings us to the other unique part of his story, the one that will put Matthews in the spotlight with the Leafs visiting his hometown Arizona Coyotes on Saturday night. His family had to be incredibly creative and diligent to create an environment where a kid raised in the desert could master a sport played on ice.
It involved pickup games on a small rink and extensive skills work with instructor Boris Dorozhenko when he was first learning, rather than simply playing on teams full time. It included a trip to the Brick Tournament in Edmonton as part of a team from Los Angeles and a spot in the famed Quebec Pee-Wee Tournament as a walk-on with a team from Ukraine.
No wonder he plays differently. Scottsdale was anything but a traditional hockey environment and the 21-year-old had to curate his career, adding skills one by one through persistence and forever searching out opportunities to grow and be challenged.
It’s a path that led Matthews to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft and will likely see him named the next captain of the Maple Leafs.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” he said Friday after a practice at the Scottsdale Ice Den, one of the rinks where he often skated as a kid. “If you put enough work and effort into it you can get to your goals.”
Matthews has taken measurable steps in each of his three NHL seasons, seeing his goals per game rate go from .49 to .55 to .63 today. His assist rate has followed the same path: .35 to .47 to .60.
He now sees a tough matchup every single night and continues to produce elite offensive numbers. Thanks to improved skating, he’s also drawn extensive praise from Leafs coach Mike Babcock.
“If you want to be a dominant two-way centre — and when he talks to me, he always talks about that — you’ve got to really skate and it’s not easy,” said Babcock. “There are lots of nights where you don’t feel like you’ve got legs, you’ve got to push through it anyway.”
The way he shoots the puck is the real differentiator, a skill that has placed him among the best in the world. Of the 101 goals Matthews has scored, only one went into an empty net. The large majority of them saw him straight up fool the goaltender.
During an appearance on Craig Custance’s “Full 60 Podcast” in September, skills coach Darryl Belfry detailed how he helped Matthews meticulously rebuild his shot twice in the last three years — including last summer.
Like Tiger Woods changing his golf swing after winning the 1997 Masters, he’s searching for an even higher level of dominance.
“Auston Matthews’ gift is his footwork when he shoots,” Belfry told Custance. “It’s elite. It’s different. It’s different than what everyone else does.
“He’s never centred. He’s on one foot or the other all the time. When you do that, it allows you to move inside the shot motion. Most people when they shoot, they have to stop their feet. When they stop their feet, that creates a limitation on how much they can change the angle, how deceptive they can be. How much power they can generate — I’m not talking full velocity, I’m talking about power that comes in the first 10 feet off the stick. That release speed. That’s the difference.
“It’s what he’s doing inside his feet. It allows him to go places inside that shot that very few people can do.”
It once prompted former Leafs teammate Connor Carrick to label Matthews a “violent offensive player” — a nice play on words given that the six-foot-three centre doesn’t appear to have any violence in his vocabulary. In an emotional sport, he always seems in complete control, taking just four penalty minutes all season.
Matthews intimidates in other ways. He’s certainly earned respect from the goalies who have faced him most often — the guys who still aren’t really sure what trick he’ll flash next.
“The way he pulls [the puck], he can disguise it, whether he’s going blocker or glove side,” said Howard. “That’s his biggest weapon that I find when I’m playing against him, is trying to pick up his blade. Which side he wants to shoot it from. The way he can pull it and push it and still get a shot off, it’s high end.”
It’s worked. A lot.