The talented 19-year-old forward paid homage to Auston Matthews after scoring for the University of Minnesota this season, but he’d never dream of doing it with Matthews in the building.
“No chance. No chance,” Mittelstadt said after Monday’s morning skate at Air Canada Centre.
It says something about how fast time flies in professional sports that there are already players entering the NHL who look up to Matthews. But here we are. Mittelstadt is 14 months younger than his fellow American and says that he and former Minnesota teammates would frequently watch Toronto games because of the Leafs centre.
In November, Mittelstadt caused a stir when he mimicked a Matthews celebration after scoring against Michigan State. First he lifted one leg and dropped his arms, and then he did the casual flick of the wrist while skating along the bench – causing some to think he was mocking his opponents.
Instead, it was intended to be nothing more than a nod to the Arizonan.
“I mean we all joked about (doing the Matthews goal celebration) and then we said first person to score will do it, so I did it,” said Mittelstadt. “It got a little misinterpreted. It was funny.”
Now three games into his NHL career after deciding to leave the NCAA and sign his entry-level contract with the Buffalo Sabres last week, he’s due to come face-to-face with Matthews.
He may even find himself trying to contain him since Sabres coach Phil Housley has kept Mittelstadt at centre and won’t have control of the line changes on Monday.
“He’s one of my favourite players to watch and now I’m playing against him,” said Mittelstadt. “It’ll be exciting, but at the same time we’re going to have to do our job against him for sure and make sure that we’re doing a good job against him defensively.”
Matthews has registered a point in all six games since returning from a separated right shoulder. He’s fifth in the NHL with 29 even-strength goals this season despite sitting out 20 games in total.
At least Mittelstadt won’t need much of a scouting report given how closely he’s followed the start of Matthews’ career.
“I think just his skill, pretty much, is probably the main thing [to watch],” he said. “Obviously he’s got great hands and he scores goals in a lot of different ways. So I think that’s probably what makes him more exciting to watch than most guys.”
Mittelstadt is no slouch himself.
He was selected eighth overall last June despite playing high school hockey in his draft year. In fact, he was never even invited to join Matthews and others at the U.S. national development program. But Mittelstadt put up 11 goals and 30 points in 34 games for the Golden Gophers this season and the Sabres were willing to burn the first year off his entry-level contract by having him jump straight into the NHL now.
“I think I probably got here a little faster than I thought I would,” he said.