Dazzling performance by Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews bodes well for future of U.S. hockey

OTTAWA, Ontario -- Brett Hull's record for goals scored by an American in the NHL is safe for now.

Auston Matthews is still 737 goals behind.

But like the entire hockey world, The Golden Brett took notice and then some Wednesday night, when the kid from Scottsdale, Arizona, became the first player to open his NHL career with a four-goal performance as the Toronto Maple Leafs took on the Ottawa Senators.

"Pretty impressive performance in the first game for a young kid," Hull told ESPN.com via text message Wednesday night. "It speaks volumes for where U.S. hockey has come!"

It was only three weeks ago that Team USA flamed out of the World Cup of Hockey with an 0-3-0 record and fueled the narrative about what is wrong with the state of the game in the United States. On Wednesday, Matthews reminded everyone that help is on the way.

"Just amazing!" Mike Modano, second all time in NHL goals by American players, with 561, told ESPN.com via text message Wednesday night. "It's a young man's game now. Being American from Arizona makes it an even more intriguing story. These kids make instant impacts. The game has definitely changed for the better."

Never mind the score of the game against the Senators, the Maple Leafs have changed for the better. Did they tank last season? Oh, you better believe they did. Although they'd never admit it, they wanted the best possible shot at Matthews the year after they missed out on Connor McDavid.

It took just the first three shots off Matthews' stick Wednesday -- all goals, of course -- to emphasize why the tanking was justified.

The second goal Matthews scored? My goodness. He stripped two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson of the puck and raced in from the sideboards to sneak a shot inside the post on Craig Anderson.


"Wow. Wow," said an NHL scout on hand, unable to find another word.

"I'll be remembered for one thing, I guess, for a long, long time in Toronto," Anderson said jokingly.

What was apparent Wednesday, and what we got a taste of in the World Cup last month, is that Matthews is already strong enough on his skates to take over a game.

"Physically, he's a man at [19] years old," Senators center Kyle Turris told reporters after the game. "So he's physically ready for the game. Obviously, he's mentally there too. He's going to have a long career. Don't wish him too much luck with the Leafs."

All rebuilds are not created equally. Players such as Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews are not available at the top of the draft every year. Teams need to hit on generational studs such as McDavid and Matthews to make a rebuild count.

The magic on display Wednesday at Canadian Tire Centre reminded everyone that the team that hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1967 can actually see light at the end of the tunnel.

"We were all part of history tonight," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. "From my perspective, since I've been the Leafs coach, that's the best night I've had since I've been here, by 10 miles -- not even close. Because now we have an opportunity."

Babcock's young supporting cast also looked good on this night.

Sure, the Leafs lost 5-4 in overtime to the hometown Ottawa Senators. But if you're a Leafs fan, who cares? This night was about knowing the franchise has turned a corner.

Matthews, for one, cared. His first comment to the media after the game?

"On that last play, it was 100 percent my fault," he said of losing his man, Turris, on the overtime goal. "Obviously, we came here to win. A good learning point for me and the team."

That's the maturity already on full display from Matthews. Playing pro hockey in Switzerland last season served him well in his preparation for his NHL debut.

"He's a man. He's 19 years old, but he acts like he's 27," Babcock said. "He's got great maturity. If you meet his mom and dad, you're thoroughly impressed with the kind of people they are and the respect he has for his mom and his sisters. ... Don't get me wrong: We would have drafted him anyway, but that makes it more special."

There was Matthews after the game, once the cameras were gone, getting a big hug from Mom and Dad in the bowels of the arena.

"It was pretty special to have my parents here and have them share that moment with me," he said.

Brian and Ema Matthews still had watery eyes after the game.

"I'm speechless," Brian said.

Dad doesn't have to say anything. His son said it all on the ice on a night that won't soon be forgotten.