MOSCOW, Russia — All you really need to know about Auston Matthews’ approach is that, at 18 years old, he entered the medal round of the men’s world championship having scored a point-per-game and still gave one veteran teammate the impression he felt as though he should be doing more.
“I talked to him and just said, ‘Your moment is going to come,’” said American Nick Foligno. “And sure enough, it comes in a shootout.”
Even before Matthews buried a beautiful game-winner in Team USA’s 2-1 quarterfinal victory over the favoured Czech Republic in Moscow, it felt like something was in the air. Maybe U.S. coach John Hynes sensed it, too, as he started Matthews at centre ice to start the affair between Foligno and Dylan Larkin, the best flanks Matthews has seen in the event.
Early in the second period, with his club down 1-0, Matthews took a feed from Frank Vatrano in full flight, bulled toward the net and slid a cheeky backhander through the legs of Czech goalie Dominik Furch.
A power move that finished smoother than great scotch.
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) May 19, 2016
When the teams began overtime knotted 1-1, Matthews was one of four U.S. skaters taking the opening shift. Ten minutes later, it was a foregone conclusion the team’s youngest player would be tapped in the shootout—and just about as certain he would score.
On the play that sent Team USA to the semifinals, Matthews swooped in slowly from the left side, made a quick jerk to his right that likely had Furch thinking he was going backhand again, then nimbly snapped a forehand through the wickets.
His two shots may have got a combined half-inch off the ground.
“I just wanted to kinda open him up and see if I could sneak it in five-hole,” Matthews said.
As the worlds build toward a climax, more and more people will be tuning in to see the Arizona product play, possibly for the first time. According to Foligno, you’d actually have to watch what he does before puck drop to get a full appreciation for what he’s about.
“The way he prepares…is unlike any 18-year-old I’ve seen,” Foligno said.
Even when the cameras are rolling, sometimes you have to squint to absorb everything Matthews accomplishes. While you can’t miss No. 34’s six-foot-two, nearly 200-lb frame or those deft breakaway moves, catching all the nuance in his game almost requires the trained eye of a longtime NHLer like Foligno.
“He plays all three zones really well,” said the Team USA assistant captain.
Despite having the square jaw to fit the profile, Matthews did everything he could to quash all hero talk after the game. While Finland’s Patrik Laine—who scored his seventh goal in eight tournament games about 45 minutes before Matthews won it for Team USA—has made no bones about the fact he wants to go No. 1 overall at the NHL draft in late June, the more subdued American isn’t really the bold declaration type.
But, hey, that’s what teammates are for.
“He’s going to be the first overall pick in the draft,” said U.S. defenceman Chris Wideman. “And you just saw why.”