Auston Matthews is arguably the hottest name in sports Thursday. The 19-year-old rookie scored four goals in his debut with the Maple Leafs Wednesday night to become the first player in NHL’s modern era to score four times in a his first league game.
Matthews was the No. 1 overall pick in last summer’s NHL draft. He’s been touted as one of the best young players in the game for several years and Minnesota got a glimpse of why in 2014.
The Scottsdale, Ariz., native (not from the Midwest or East Coast) and the U-18 U.S. national team visited Mariucci Arena to face the Gophers in an exhibition game on Nov. 21, 2014. I covered the game.
When Matthews name started popping up late Wednesday night and Thursday morning it sparked the memory of what he did on the ice two years ago in Minneapolis. The Gophers were ranked No. 4 in the nation led by stars Kyle Rau, Mike Reilly and Hudson Fasching, yet Matthews was the best players on the ice that night.
Matthews scored two goals, including the game-winning goal in overtime to hand the Gophers hockey program its first-ever loss, 5-4, to the U-18 national team.
I save my notes from every game I cover and pulled them out of the digital archive Thursday morning. Here a couple things I jotted down that night:
“I can’t say enough good things about Auston Matthews.”
“Matthews is as good as advertised.”
He finished the game with three points (two goals, one assist) and had a game-high 10 shots on goal.
“It’s really fun playing in arenas like this and seeing so many people. It was a good crowd tonight, so it is fun playing in these types of buildings,” Matthews said. He proved again Wednesday night he thrives on the big stage with all eyes on him.
My angle that night was focused on USA Hockey's growing talent pool outside of the traditional hockey states, with Matthews among the examples. The U.S. team had no Minnesotans on the roster that year, but instead stars from Arizona, Texas and California.
“You see a lot more players coming out of the Southwest states like California, Utah, Idaho and Texas. So I think it’s a really big part of USA Hockey and growing the game,” Matthews said. “I’m really looking forward to the future of players coming up from those types of places.”
Gophers coach Don Lucia couldn't directly speak to Matthews' effort per NCAA rules, but generally speaking said "They've got some talented players there, no doubt. When the right guys have the puck in certain areas, it finds the back the net, and guys like that are fun to watch."
The next night, the U-18 team beat Augsburg 6-1 led by Matthews' hat trick and one assist.
The Gophers host the U-18 team Friday in an exhibition at Mariucci Arena. Maybe the next Matthews will be on the ice.
Matthews returns to the Twin Cities next Thursday when the Wild host the Maple Leafs. If history repeats itself, expect the young star to have another good night in the state of hockey.