In the end, the most important thing for Auston Matthews was that his Team North America squad got the win over Finland. But it was hard not to see how much more of an impact the kid they call ‘Papi’ had in the World Cup game than draft rival Patrik Laine of Team Finland.
Is Matthews vs. Laine a manufactured debate? In a lot of ways, sure. Was this only a single game and therefore a pretty small sample size? Of course. But in Matthews’ first big game at the Air Canada Centre, the Toronto Maple Leafs phenom proved why the franchise made the right call in drafting him first overall this summer.
“He was great,” said center Nathan MacKinnon. “His shot is pretty special, he’s got that quick release. He made a lot of good passes and we’re excited to have him. He was a late addition to the team and you can tell why he was picked. He’s been one of our top forwards.”
Playing wing on a line with Connor McDavid and Mark Scheifele, Matthews used his speed and his big frame to cause havoc when he had the puck. Driving to the net, he made North America’s first score happen, with Jack Eichel getting the goal on a rebound. But it wasn’t just his offensive acumen that impressed his older teammates.
“He played a solid hockey game,” Scheifele said. “He played good defensively and made some plays that maybe people didn’t notice – chipping pucks out, that kind of stuff. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. Every game he’s gotten better so hopefully he continues to grow and we’ll help him out with that.”
Pressure doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with Matthews, despite the expectations the hockey world has for the Arizona kid. Playing for Team USA at the World Championship, he basically took over when he was told it was OK for him to take over on a team featuring older, established NHLers. But playing at the Air Canada Centre for the first time, the building he will be expected to blow the roof off as a member of the Maple Leafs in the near future – that had to get the nerves going, right?
“Not too much, honestly,” he said. “A little anxious to get going with a two-week camp, three exhibition games – I think we were all pretty anxious to finally get going in the tournament and it showed. We were flying around the ice.”
That they were. The Finns knew after the game that they just got ash-canned by the youngsters and no doubt North America’s speed caused numerous problems for Finland’s young defense. Plus, the team’s unpredictable offensive skill had goalie Pekka Rinne stunned for most of the contest.
“It was pretty special,” Matthews said. “We controlled the pace of the game, utilized our strengths, our speed, controlled pucks down low and we were able to take control of it.”
And what of Laine, the player drafted directly after Matthews in 2016? For most of the game, he was invisible. But a thundering hit on Dylan Larkin in the third period showed off the teenager’s impressive physicality, demonstrating how Laine is more than just a bomb shot.
Both Matthews and Laine are going to be excellent NHLers and I wouldn’t be surprised if Laine gets more points in his rookie season, since he’ll play on a Winnipeg squad with a better surrounding cast of forwards. But the way Matthews creates and controls a game is exactly what the rebuilding Maple Leafs need – that big center that is so valuable in the NHL.
Laine played with one of the best young pivots in the game in Aleksander Barkov, but was rendered an extra by Matthews and his high-flying buddies. Again, it was only one game and the sun’ll come out tomorrow, but for those folks out there who wondered if the Leafs should have taken Laine first overall, Matthews made a pretty convincing opening statement in his own defense against Finland.