Hearing the name is one thing. Seeing the player up close for the first time is another.
And then you take a moment to dream the way all of us dream, and the future seems like something we’ve never known before.
And it makes you smile. Because this is new and so real and so full of possibilities and you’re watching Auston Matthews for the very first time and everything seems just right with the world.
His leg got caught, or so it seemed, as Matthews climbed from the Team North America bench for his first real foray onto the ice of the Air Canada Centre Sunday night. And then, almost immediately, it was magic time for the newest of Maple Leaf toys.
Just about his first time with the puck he powered his way past the Buffalo defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen, he used his strength along the boards, he put himself in position to score. That was daunting enough. A few seconds later, the rebound of his shot was knocked in by Jack Eichel. And there was a sense of symmetry to the first North America goal of the World Cup of Hockey: Eichel from Matthews and Connor McDavid.
Last year’s No. 1 and No. 2. This year’s No. 1 draft pick. We already knew these kids were all right, McDavid and Eichel, and early on in the World Cup it is quite apparent that Matthews isn’t that far behind.
It looked like McDavid scored to make it 2-0 over Finland again on an assist from Matthews, but the goal was called back on some kind of fictional goalie interference. The goal was disallowed: The play was evident. The many sides of Auston Matthews on opening night.
And it’s just opening night.
Matthews’ first period of play at the Air Canada Centre, which will be his hockey home for the next decade or so, ended after 5:18 of ice time, 40 seconds more than McDavid was granted: Something dangerous happened almost every shift they were together.
And we have to remember and catch ourselves: This is the beginning. This is just the beginning. And this isn’t pre-season NHL hockey played against defenceman who will be out of work in October. This is the World Cup. This was Finland, the country that plays everyone well. But the kids were too much for the Finns.
And Matthews was one of those kids, fitting in with ease and comfort and nothing that said he was the real kid among kids.
An NHL scout watched the first period and compared his young talent to the Leafs’ young talent. His player is good. He said Matthews was more than that. He said the maturity, the strength, the moxie, the vision, the puck-movement displayed by young Matthews is proof that the Leafs are finally doing things the right way. For the first time in a long time. Proof, he said, that the Brendan Shana-plan is well in place and on its way.
One World Cup game may not a lifetime make but there is little doubt that Matthews is unlike any player the Leafs have begun with in decades. You can see levels already and this is just the first act. Who could have done this as a rookie, stepping in as a kid and playing against the best in the world? Almost no one who has ever played here before.
Darryl Sittler was 20 when he started playing for the Leafs in 1970. He was 22 before he began to make an NHL impact. Lanny McDonald was 20 when he joined the Leafs in 1973. He was 22 before he started to be a difference maker. Wendel Clark scored 34 goals as a 19-year-old on a terrible Toronto team at a time when just about everybody scored 30 goals. He wasn’t ready for best on best.
Matthews is at a different level entirely. Through two periods against Finland he led both teams in shots on goal. It’s a different time and he’s a different player. He’s large, he’s strong, he’s wide, he’s skilled, he’s relentless, and he’s seemingly ready to do what no Leaf player has done, maybe ever.
There haven’t been a lot of young stars around Toronto in this half century: And Todd McLellan, playing Matthews with McDavid, playing him on the power play, put him in positions to succeed, puts a touch or pressure on Mike Babcock to do the same with the Leafs. Against competition that is above most NHL teams.
The final score Sunday night: North America 4, Finland 1. The winners, in no particular order, the game of hockey, the National Hockey League and the long suffering Maple Leaf fans, who deserve a present and got one here.
Steve Simmons, Postmedia Network |Photo: thestar.com
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