The 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic at Exhibition Stadium on New Year's Day was certainly special for Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews.
He became the first rookie to score 20 goals this season.
His 20th goal was also Matthews' first in overtime, a backhand shot at the right post in a 5-4 win against the Detroit Red Wings. The 19-year-old triggered one of his signing bonuses by scoring No. 20, according to TSN. It was his fourth goal in three games and ninth point in six.
He was named first NHL Rookie of the Month for the first time in December, leading all first-year players with eight goals and 12 points in 12 games. Winnipeg Jets rookie right wing Patrik Laine, who had six goals and 12 points in 14 games, scored his 20th on an empty-net goal in a 6-4 win at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 3.
Just a year ago at this time, Matthews and Laine were representing and starring for their respective countries at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Finland. Matthews won a bronze medal after scoring seven goals and 11 points in seven games for the United States; Laine won a gold medal with Finland after scoring seven goals and 13 points in seven games.
Video: WPG@FLA: Laine snipes goal after steal by Little
Many of the players for the U.S. at the 2017 WJC who played with Matthews at either USA Hockey's National Team Development Program or the 2016 U.S. National Junior Team aren't surprised with his success at the NHL level.
University of Wisconsin forward Luke Kunin (Minnesota Wild), captain of the gold medal-winning 2017 U.S. National Junior Team, played two seasons with Matthews at the USNTDP.
"If you know him well, and I feel I do, you expected this from him," Kunin said. "He probably has the most drive of any player I've ever been around. To be around him for two years (at the NTDP) was really special.
"I think he's never satisfied with where he's at and wants to be better, and I think that's a big characteristic and trait of someone who's a winner."
Boston College sophomore Colin White (Ottawa Senators), who played alongside Matthews for two seasons at the NTDP and was his teammate at the 2016 WJC, is amazed with how Matthews has been able to transfer his speed and release to the NHL game. White led the 2017 U.S. National Junior Team with seven goals.
Video: TOR@NJD: Matthews bats puck out of midair to pad lead
"His hand-eye coordination was great with those sick tips," White said. "His crossover game is so good in making guys have to switch on him and forcing others to cover him and opening up space for other guys. He's doing it at the next level, which is even more impressive."
Matthews had seven goals and 12 points during an eight-game point streak that ended in a 5-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday. The Maple Leafs control more than 50 percent of all shots attempted when Matthews (52.29 SAT%) has been on the ice.
"His on-ice highlights are great, but it's his competitiveness that's second to none," U.S. National Junior Team defenseman Casey Fitzgerald (Buffalo Sabres) said. "I saw it for two years [at the NTDP]. It didn't matter whether it was practice or in a game; when you go in the corner with him, you knew it's going to be a battle. If you took the puck from him, you knew he was coming to get it back.
"It's those little things are what makes players great at the next level, and he's been doing that. I think that's why he's having such tremendous success and is putting up those numbers."
Laine has a point in four straight games (two goals, seven points) and leads all NHL rookies with seven power-play goals this season, but is out indefinitely because of a concussion after an open-ice hit by Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe in the third period of a 4-3 loss Saturday.
Video: WPG@BUF: Laine takes big check, leaves game
Finland finished ninth at the 2017 WJC, in large part because of the fact many of the key performers eligible for the 2016 WJC remained with their respective NHL teams.
Finland captain Olli Juolevi (Vancouver Canucks) said Laine's best asset was always his shot and it's something he has seamlessly transferred to the NHL. Juolevi represented Finland in the 2016 and 2017 WJC.
"He had one of the greatest shots I have ever seen, even in pro hockey, so I know he can score goals but I don't think even he expected that he was going to score like that many goals [in the NHL]," Juolevi said. "He's still a young guy and for sure he's going to have ups and downs through a year. It's 82 games. It's not easy for anyone, but he has been excellent and I'm super-excited about how things are going for him."
(Games through Jan. 8)
Shots on goal: 140
Avg. ice time: 17:51
*Goals created per game: 0.39
Points per 60 minutes (all situations): 3.02
Shots on goal: 111
Avg. ice time: 18:09
*Goals created per game: 0.37
Points per 60 minutes (all situations): 2.91
*- information courtesy Hockey-reference.com