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Matthews made major impact in first 100 games with Maple Leafs

Top pick from 2016 NHL Draft has brought hope to Toronto, created legacy in native Arizona

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / NHL.com Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Auston Matthews was too frustrated to listen to the message from his boyhood idol. That's how much this loss hurt.

The Toronto Maple Leafs center had just finished addressing the media at Air Canada Centre on Monday after a 4-1 loss against the Arizona Coyotes, the team he had grown up cheering for in Scottsdale, Arizona. As he was about to slip through a door at the back of the dressing room, he was informed that former Coyotes captain Shane Doan had taped a congratulatory message for Matthews regarding his 100th regular-season NHL game.

"Not now. I'll hear it another time," he said politely before disappearing from view.

 

[RELATED: Coyotes win third in row, end Maple Leafs streak]

 

Such is the competitive nature of Matthews. There will be plenty of time for reminiscing about this milestone in days to come. But in this moment, the disappointment churning in his gut, it was a topic to be put on the backburner.

It could all have been so different too, if not for a goaltender interference call late in the game.

With the Coyotes leading 2-1, Matthews scored what appeared to be the tying goal with 3:50 remaining in the third period. But a coach's challenge by the Coyotes led to a reversal of the call on the ice after Maple Leafs forward Zach Hyman was deemed to have impeded Arizona goalie Antti Raanta in his attempt to make a save.

"When they are taking so long to make a decision, you know it's probably not a good thing," Hyman said.

Matthews refused to use the call as an excuse. Playing for the second time since missing four games because of an upper-body injury, he claimed he simply wasn't good enough.

"I didn't play well," Matthews said.

That's not a statement he's had to make very often through the first 100 regular-season games of his NHL career.

In the 514 days since being the No. 1 pick at the 2016 NHL Draft, Matthews has scored 52 goals. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov is the lone player with more (57).

Video: TOR@MTL: Matthews nets two in 3rd against Habs

"I think to be in the top-two in goals over a period like that, let alone in your first 100 games, is remarkable," Doan said. "And it's the way he's handled himself too.

"For the most part, young guys seem to succeed in markets where there's not as much pressure and they kind of slide underneath (the spotlight). He's had to do it in the pressure of the hockey market of Toronto, which is great, arguably one of the best parts of playing in Toronto. But it is tougher, especially without any superstar on his team to help alleviate the pressure."

Matthews grew up a fan of Doan and the Coyotes. On Monday, he had a chance to alter the outcome of a game against the team he used to root for, one that features a number of his close friends, including forwards Clayton Keller and Christian Fischer. But it wasn't to be.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Matthews took Keller and Fischer to dinner at Jacob's Steakhouse in Toronto. When the meal was over, Matthews picked up the tab.

"When he comes to Arizona, we'll take him out. But I told him when they come, we're not going anywhere nice like that," Fischer said.

Once the puck dropped, friends became foes. That's one reason why Matthews was so irritated with the loss.

Not that he ever likes to lose.

Video: TOR@LAK: Matthews scores on penalty shot

Matthews' will to win is one of the attributes Doan admires. And when Matthews takes time to hear and digest the message Doan left him on Monday, maybe it will offer him some perspective.

"Hey Auston, good to see you back," Doan said in the message. "Good to see you playing again. 

"Keep going big man, because it's fun to watch. Everyone's enjoying it. It's been impressive. And stay the same as you've always been.

"We'll talk soon."

It was 404 days between his first regular-season game in the NHL and his 100th, but Matthews already has left his mark in Toronto and Arizona, two distinctly different hockey markets.

In the Original Six city of Toronto, he has delivered hope to a community that has not celebrated a Stanley Cup title in 50 years. 

Perhaps the sign held by one young boy against the glass during warm-ups on Monday symbolized what Matthews, still 20 years old, means to this community.

Video: CAR@TOR: Marleau, Matthews connect for sweet goal

"I would rather meet Auston Matthews than Santa Claus," it said.

It's understandable where much of the hype comes from. The loss Monday notwithstanding, much of Matthews' young NHL career reads like a Hollywood script.

He scored four goals in his NHL debut, a 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12, 2016. He helped the Maple Leafs qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in 13 years. He won the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie after scoring 40 goals in 82 games.

In 18 games this season, Matthews is sixth in the League with 21 points (12 goals, nine assists), one more than Keller. Yet there are no predictions about how lofty his personal statistics might be by the end of the regular season.

"I don't put too many expectations on myself," he said. "You want to have fun. You're in the NHL. I think I've done that so far, but there are a lot of things I think I can be better at. There are a lot of ways I can improve."

As for already playing 100 games in the NHL, Matthews can't believe how quickly the time has gone.

"It's flown by. I guess that's what everybody says; [time] flies by when you're in this league and it sure has," he said.

And he's made an impact in Canada and the United States.

Video: TOR@OTT: Matthews fires home wrist shot on the rush

About 1,980 miles southwest of Toronto, a Zamboni sits in the AZ Ice Arcadia rink with an Auston Matthews signature on the bumper. In the arena where he honed his skills as a boy, Matthews last year gladly scrawled his name on the Zamboni as per a request from Rob Holthaus, the lead rink attendant.

In what has become an unofficial tradition, young players in Arizona often tap Matthews' autograph on the Zamboni bumper for luck as they make their way onto the ice. 

Perhaps it's their way of hoping to become the next Auston Matthews one day.

"It's great to see how the sport is growing there," Matthews said.

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet has already noticed Matthews' influence in the Valley of the Sun.

"Minor hockey in Arizona has taken off, and he is a huge contributor to that," Tocchet said. "This is my first year as head coach there, and I see it.

"You're a seven-year-old kid. What are you doing? You are You Tubing Auston Matthews. And if he scores two goals, they all know that. These seven-year-old kids, they all want to be Auston Matthews. Instead of playing football or soccer, kids say, 'Dad, can I get a pair of skates. I want to be Auston Matthews.' That's been his impact. 

"I see kids wearing his jersey. Kids talking about his goals. At our practice rink, the Ice Den, they envision a 2-on-1 going top-shelf. And for them, it's like, 'Well, Auston Matthews used to do that in this same rink.' So obviously, that's a huge impact."

An impact he has made after 100 games.

"It's not like it's Game 1,000. It's 100," Matthews said.

Imagine the impact Matthews could have at this rate going forward.

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