The Auston Matthews era in Toronto has begun in earnest.
In historic fashion the 19-year-old Arizona native responded to the enormous weight of the expectations of being the league’s first-overall 2016 draft pick by netting an incredible four goals in his NHL debut. It was the highest goal-scoring output ever for a rookie playing in his first NHL game.
Leafs Nation will even forgive Matthews for missing a defensive assignment that led to the game-winning goal – by Ottawa’s Kyle Turris in overtime – that gave the host Senators a 5-4 win.
Matthews opened the scoring on his third shift, converting a centring pass from Zach Hyman from behind the net for his first of many career goals, as his parents Brian and Ema celebrated the milestone in the stands at Canadian Tire Centre. Later in the frame, after the Senators scored twice to take the lead, Matthews pounced on a turnover, stripped Norris Trophy finalist Erik Karlsson of the puck, then skated in to beat goalie Craig Anderson for the equalizer.
The second period was just as impressive. Matthews regained the lead for Toronto, sniping a cross-ice pass from the corner from Morgan Rielly to complete the hat trick. The Leafs’ new number 34 joined four other players: Alex Smart (1934), Real Cloutier (1979), Fabian Brunnstrom (2008) and Derek Stepan (2010) as NHL rookies to score three times in their debuts.
Ottawa knotted the game on a weak goal through Frederik Andersen’s legs courtesy of Derrick Brassard.
With time winding down, Matthews scored the historic marker with just under three seconds left in the period, joining the rush to one-time a feed from William Nylander.
The Senators forced overtime with Turris’s third period goal after the Leafs defence was caught sleeping when blueliner Martin Marincin gave upon a play that looked like it was icing.
On the overtime winner, Turris – who had been checked by Matthews earlier in the game preventing a potential breakaway – got an extra step, and ultimately the last laugh, on the Leafs rookie.
Andersen looked shaky on the Leafs’ first and third goals, but settled in to make some key stops in the dying moments of regulation.
Mitch Marner, also making his NHL debut, was the Leafs’ second-best forward of the evening. The Memorial Cup MVP and CHL Player of the Year was stopped on a breakaway by Anderson in the first period, and also hit the goal post later in the frame.
Matt Hunwick suffered a cut above his eye after absorbing a hit from Chris Neil and missed the last two periods.
Should Matthews eventually evolve into the franchise player that Leafs fans have been coveting, his debut on Wednesday night was the watershed moment for the fortunes of the team.