Matthews has superb Arizona homecoming with Maple Leafs
The smile on Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews’ face was as bright and distinct as any sunset in his home state of Arizona.
Midway through the opening period of the Leafs only visit to the desert this season back on Dec. 28, Matthews took a setup from teammate William Nylander and put the puck over Arizona Coyotes goalie Scott Wedgewood. The score came just over two minutes after Zack Hyman’s shorthanded goal and brought the Leafs to an early 2-0 lead in a game they eventually won 7-4.
Greeted by teammates after the goal, Matthews was all smiles and kept on smiling.
“It was a great feeling,” he said of scoring in his hometown. “I’ll remember this one as a pretty special goal. Definitely pretty nice.”
On the goal, Matthews outlined what will likely evolve as one of his special moments in the game.
“We had a good give-and-go down low,” he explained. “When (Nylander drives) the middle like that, it kind of creates a lot of space for me. He pulled the puck around the defense and created a little bit of a screen. I was as able to sneak it past the goalie.”
Yet, no one in the sold-out Gila River Arena crowd of 17,125 was actually keeping score.
Those in the house came to see Matthews, the Scottsdale native, who put Arizona on the hockey map. As the only first-overall pick from the Copper State, Matthews’ shadow in the game remains as long and as commanding as Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid or Alex Ovechkin.
At age 20, Matthews already shows the mettle of a dominant player, and those traits of maturity and professionalism are clearly evident.
“He wants to be great, and that starts with a great mom and dad, which he has,” said Toronto coach Mike Babcock. “With a solid background, there also is development as a player. His skill set comes with a burden. He understands the game, but his learning curve is still developing.”
While existing in the hockey epicenter that is Toronto, Matthews continues to recognize his roots in Arizona and the tidal wave of interest he helped create.
“I think hockey is really grown (in Arizona), especially the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to be part of that and all the support that comes from here. It’s exciting to be here during the summer, going into rinks and see a lot of kids come up to you. That’s humbling. Just to be part of the growth that’s going on around here is amazing.”
Part of Matthews’ hockey education in the desert is his association with Shane Doan, the former Coyotes captain. Playing youth hockey in the Valley, most notably with the Arizona Bobcats, and attending many Coyotes games gave Matthews an opportunity to form a relationship with Doan.
“(Doan) was definitely the player I looked up to when I was growing up,” he said. “Over the last couple years, just to get to know him and skate with him in the summer, he is just an unbelievable person and unbelievable hockey player. Just the type of person he is off the ice resembles that. He had a great career, did so much for hockey in Arizona and a great role model for kids like me. So everyone is pretty fortunate to have a guy like that for 20 years around here.”
Of his skill set, perhaps Matthews is most adept is his ability to control the corners. Smart and alert, Matthews has the ability spin on dime and keep possession. That is likely one dimension that will enable Matthews to enhance his overall skill level.
“I’m a corner guy, and always believed if you control the corners, you can control the game,” said Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet. “Matthews is a corner guy and if you do that, you’re a very special player.”
— Mark Brown
(Feb. 2, 2018)