The Maple Leafs tanked and got their guy.
And when the puck dropped for the 2016-17 season, he left no doubt that Toronto’s front office had made the right move.
On Oct. 12, 2016, Auston Matthews had a debut for the ages, scoring four goals in his first NHL game. He was the first player ever to do so.
How it happened…
Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, centered the Leafs’ third line with wingers Zach Hyman and William Nylander.
First Period, 8:21: Nylander came skating down the boards into the offensive zone, and threw the puck to an open Matthews in the slot. Ottawa’s Derick Brassard caught up in time to interrupt the shot. Zach Hyman, who was in front of the net, chipped it down to Nylander, who looped around behind the net at the goal line. Nylander turned to take a shot, but it bounced off the netting on the outside. Hyman skated in, recovered the puck, and circled around the net. With goalie Craig Anderson unable to gain enough momentum to slide to the opposite post, he fell back with his glove out. Hyman slipped a pass out in front on his backhand and Matthews put it home for his first NHL goal. Toronto was up, 1-0.
First Period, 14:18: Skating into the neutral zone, Nylander sent the puck up to Hyman on the blueline along the boards. Erik Karlsson got a hold of it on the bounce and sent it back the other way. Defenseman Martin Marincin picked up the puck and dragged a pass across his body, to Matthews on the blueline. With Mark Stone on him, Matthews slipped the puck through his legs, leading it back toward center ice, where Mike Hoffman was standing. Matthews got his stick out in time and dangled the puck through a defender’s feet a second time. He turned and chipped the puck into the offensive zone. Erik Karlsson recovered it along the half-boards. Matthews glided by the reigning Norris Trophy winner, lifting his stick and taking the puck away in the process. Matthews then moved in toward the net and, with the puck on the short side, took a shot that snuck under the glove of Anderson. After Ottawa came back with two unanswered goals from Bobby Ryan and Karlsson, Matthews tied it back up for Toronto, 2-2.
Second Period, 1:25: Morgan Reilly carried the puck into offensive zone. Heading into the corner, Reilly threw a pass out to Nylander in front of the net, but a backchecking Zack Smith forced Nylander out of the way. Instead, the puck traveled by both, to the stick of Matthews, standing in the opposite face-off circle. He rifled a shot past Anderson and former Maple Leaf defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Toronto had a 3-2 lead, and Auston Matthews had his first NHL hat trick.
Second Period, 19:57: Brassard scored to tie the game up two minutes earlier, and time was winding down in the period. Ottawa defenseman Cody Ceci carried the puck in and dropped a pass back to Bobby Ryan, who fired a shot wide. As the puck wrapped around the boards, Jake Gardiner retrieved it and flipped it up into the neutral zone over Brassard, who was caught flat-footed trying to swat the puck down. With three Senators caught up ice, and one in the process of heading to the bench for a change, Matthews picked up the puck and had Nylander skating down with him. Chris Wideman was the only obstacle in front of them. Matthews passed the puck to Nylander and both made a break for the net. Wideman began drifting toward the puck carrier in Nylander, allowing Matthews to move ahead of the lone defenseman. Nylander made a pass that hopped just over Wideman’s outreached stick, and Matthews finished off the play with a history-making goal that gave the Leafs the lead back.
Matthews’ final line for the night: Four goals (all at even strength), six shots on goal, and a plus-3 rating in 17:37 of ice time.
The irony of it all? Despite a historic performance from the highly-touted rookie, Toronto lost that game, 5-4, in overtime. Kyle Turris scored the tying goal later in the third, then came up with the game-winner 37 seconds into overtime, after he was left unchecked by Matthews to send Ottawa off to a 1-0-0 start.
Still, whenever someone goes to look back on that night, Matthews’ four-goal performance will likely be the first thought that comes to mind.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Matthews said after the game. “Couldn’t believe it, that that was happening out there. Our line was clicking tonight. We were really fortunate, created a lot of opportunities and were able to cash in on them. I think every line played well tonight. Every line could have had two or three goals apiece. Our line just happened to capitalize on some good chances, get some good breaks”
“How often do you expect the debut guy to score four goals?” Nylander, who racked up two assists that night, said. “Has it happened before?…It’s a pretty amazing start for him.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s a good player. When you see that second goal he scored, not many guys do that. We’re fortunate that we have him, and yet we can be way, way better than we were tonight, and we’re going to get way better.”
“It’s a blue team on the other side, it’s different colors, and whoever scores a goal, it’s a goal against” Senators coach Guy Boucher, who coached against Matthews in the Swiss National League the previous year, said in his post-game press conference. “I’m not surprised, I’ve seen him firsthand last year. I’ve told everybody he’s the real deal, he’s the packaged deal, so nothing surprising in his game. He’s played with men last year, and he comes in playing with men, so he’s good right away.”
Matthews’ performance would go on to jumpstart a rookie campaign that saw him finish with 40 goals (tied for third in the NHL for the season) and 69 points (tied for 20th), helping him win the Calder Trophy and push an upstart Leafs team into the playoffs, after finishing dead last the previous season.