Matthews, Leafs on incredible journey that began at 2016 draft

After a two goal night, including the game winner, Auston Matthews spoke with Christine Simpson about his night, the rookie success, and the Leafs playoff race.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – The mood was unusually festive as the bus pulled out of here on June 25, the day after the Toronto Maple Leafs selected Auston Matthews first overall.

It hadn’t been an easy few years for those employed by the team. A lot of jobs had been lost and not nearly enough games were won.

Even the moments of relative prosperity came with calamity – the largest blown third-period lead in Game 7 history, the 18-wheeler off a cliff, the late March collapse under Randy Carlyle.

But it felt like the tide was turning as the team staff headed home from the 2016 draft, and a stop was made at the duty-free store before crossing the border. That ensured the rest of the trip was enjoyed with adult beverages in hand.

They were turning the page on a long, dark road and looking ahead to a brighter future.

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We all remember the first game. We all remember the four goals.

But what some teammates quietly remember is the fact Matthews stepped off the ice in the biggest moment of his life and immediately took ownership for letting Kyle Turris slip free in overtime and score the winner in Ottawa’s 5-4 victory that night.

“That last play was 100 per cent my fault,” Matthews told reporters.

Many on the team were still getting to know Matthews at that point because his first NHL training camp was shortened by the World Cup. He arrived with talent and hype shortly after celebrating his 19th birthday, but it was his maturity that stood out inside the dressing room.

There are unspoken rules about how to conduct yourself behind closed doors on a hockey team. Each room has a dynamic – a hierarchy, a way of being – and Matthews found his place without disruption.

Leo Komarov says it was immediately obvious that he had played professionally the season before in Switzerland because of the way he went about his business each day.

Asked to identify when he realized how good his teammate truly was, James van Riemsdyk replied: “Probably the first game. Were you watching that one? That was a pretty good one.”

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At this point last year, Matthews was still just a fan.

His season with the Zurich Lions ended earlier than expected so he headed to Ann Arbor, Mich., to continue skating with the U.S. National Development Team in preparation for the IIHF World Hockey Championship.

That afforded him an opportunity to take in a Stanley Cup playoff game at Joe Louis Arena. He went unrecognized while sitting in the stands during the Red Wings-Lightning first-round series along with Brady Tkachuk – Matthew’s younger brother – and USNTDP coach Don Granato, among others.

“(Dylan) Larkin was playing and it’s always fun to watch him,” said Matthews. “You kind of watch it as a fan. It was an unbelievable atmosphere. For a playoff game, it’s a lot louder. The hockey, it’s the best hockey, it’s definitely a lot of fun to watch and I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to play in, too.”

•••

Fast forward to the weekend and Matthews is back at the Joe, only with a better seat.

The arena is positively playoff-like because so many Leafs fans have made the trip across the border. Larkin predicted before the game that those wearing blue would “probably be pretty cocky that they’re in the playoffs and we’re not.”

He wasn’t wrong.

However, Detroit enjoyed the run of play through the first period and held a 1-0 lead. Then Matthews made a series of moves that brought the travelling contingent out of their seats, deftly slicing through Detroit’s defensive coverage while performing a give-and-go with Komarov and beating Jimmy Howard to the short side.

“I’ve seen that a couple times from him,” teammate Mitch Marner said afterwards. “He’s got a really quick release and I think he tricks a lot of people with it. He’s constantly getting open for the puck as well and putting himself in an area he can score.

“I think when he gets in those areas it’s pretty deadly. I think he’s one of the top goal-scorers already in those tight areas and he keeps proving it here.”

When Matthews added the winner with 69 seconds to play in regulation, it gave him an incredible 38 goals on the season.

That’s the same number as Larkin’s career total, albeit in 79 fewer games.

“He’s what we call a horse,” a veteran scout said of Matthews in the Detroit press box. “The first horse they’ve had since Mats Sundin.”

•••

It’s Feb. 14 in Toronto, yet another two-goal night for Matthews. After the horn sounds on a comfortable 7-1 victory over the New York Islanders and the players salute their fans, Matthews is stopped in the hallway and told he’s been selected as the game’s No. 1 star.

Except the rookie doesn’t agree with the choice.

He pleads for them to change it to teammate Josh Leivo, who had three points to his two. No doubt Matthews realized they were Leivo’s first three points in a season where he’d been a frequent healthy scratch.

Alas, it was too late to switch things up.

Public address announcer Mike Ross called Leivo then Frederik Andersen then Matthews.

That level of awareness and selflessness made the teenager worthy of a first star turn, anyway.

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The Leafs have covered a lot of ground in the 283 days since Matthews was called to the draft stage by assistant general manager Mark Hunter.

Today, they are back in Buffalo.

A victory over the Sabres would put them on the edge of their first post-season appearance after an 82-game season since 2003-04. It would also give the franchise its highest point total since that year, when Pat Quinn was still coach and Sundin was the captain and leading scorer.

The current Leafs – a young team usually found playing “Call of Duty” on Xbox together when not at the rink – are growing increasingly excited about their playoff prospects thanks to a 10-2-1 run and the five games left on the schedule.

“We’re in an unbelievable situation right now,” said Matthews.

He’s one week away from capping an historic season.

Matthews needs only one point to establish a new franchise rookie record with 67 and is the odds-on favourite to become the first Leafs player to win the Calder Trophy since Brit Selby in 1965-66.

Two more goals would give him the second-best rookie total in the last 20 years behind Alex Ovechkin and, in a rare bit of candour, Matthews acknowledged in Detroit that he’d love to hit 40 in his first NHL campaign.

He’s already a No. 1 centre who capably handles the defensive aspects of that job while still generating 3.4 shots per game – putting him on pace for the fifth-most shots by a rookie since the stat started being tracked, sandwiched between Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby.

What has stood out most while watching his season from up close, and speaking to those who have known him and gotten to know him, is the overwhelming sentiment that there have been no shortcuts for Matthews.

As Mike Babcock would say: He does it right, every day.

In the here and now, he will keep his mind in small places – just like parents Brian and Ema taught him. It’s allowed him to navigate his way through everything this season has thrown at him: The four-goal debut, the 13-game goal drought, an appearance at the all-star game, the growing talk about his eventual captaincy.

Now on the cusp of becoming the rare No. 1 overall pick to immediately lead his team to the playoffs and, perhaps, scoring that 40th goal, nothing changes.

“That would be awesome,” Matthews said of the potential milestone. “But, for me, I’m just trying to have fun every day, enjoy the season. Just have fun and get better. I think that kind of stuff … you play the right way and that kind of stuff will take care of itself.”

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