Auston Matthews: A Season to Remember

On Thursday evening, Auston Matthews and the ZSC Lions were swept by the eight seeded SC Bern. Matthews’ season, therefore, came to an early and surprising end. He had an incredible pre-draft year and was arguably one of the best players in the Swiss league at the age of only 18. Before becoming the first overall pick at the draft, Matthews may join the U.S. team for the World Championship. First though, let’s have a look back at his outstanding Swiss stint.

Breaking New Ground

In May last year, a Swiss newspaper reported the Zurich Lions of the Swiss league have signed next US Wunderkind Auston Matthews for the coming season. After sorting some visa and working permit issues with the Swiss government, the ZSC Lions made the signing of Matthews official on August 7.

With his decision to play his pre-draft season overseas, Matthews broke new ground. He had offers to play for several other teams but has decided to play in Switzerland after spending time at the U18 World Championship in the country and meeting several key management persons of the ZSC organization.

Because of visa regulations, Matthews missed the first couple of games of the regular season as his working permit was kicking in only after he turned 18.

First Game, First Goal

One day after turning 18 years old, Matthews was slated to make his debut in professional hockey with the ZSC Lions in a home game against Fribourg-Gotteron. Former NHL-coach and current head coach of the Lions, Marc Crawford, lined up Matthews as a center next to Reto Schappi and former Senators player Ryan Keller. It took Matthews a couple of shifts to get used to the game, but he picked up the pace fast.

“I felt good, I haven’t played for a while and needed some shifts, maybe even a whole period to heat up. I started to feel very good in the second and third period,” he said after the game.

It was in the second period when the Lions went to the power play and Matthews’ big moment was about to come. He rushed through the neutral zone with the puck before a give-and-go with winger and former Edmonton Oilers camp participant Chris Baltisberger, which he finished off for the 3-2 lead.

23 other regular season goals will follow in the course of the season, but surely a first goal is one a hockey player will never forget. It was even more special as his family was attending the game.

The Injury

Still early in the season, Matthews sustained a back injury after falling hard into the boards on Oct 23. The injury kept Matthews sidelined for 14 games. However, it did not hinder Matthews to become the second best scorer on the team and the league’s fifth best goal scorer. He returned strong from the injury and showed no signs of slowing down and came back sharp, like he never missed a single game.

Getting Challenged by Laine and Puljujarvi

Matthews played his second World Junior Championship this past December. He has won the bronze medal with the U.S. and was the fourth best scorer of the tournament. Although he had a strong

Auston Matthews of the ZSC Lions
Auston Matthews (courtesy ZSC Lions)

tournament with seven goals and four assists in seven games, both eligible top prospects from Finland, Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine, have been more noticeable and helped to secure the gold medal for their home country. Puljujarvi led the scoring list and Laine tied Matthews with 11 points. After the tournament, for the first time in the season, there were speculations that Laine or Puljujarvi might challenge Matthews for the number one draft spot.

The Point Streak

But Matthews wouldn’t be projected a future superstar if he would not be able to pick up the pace after criticism. Matthews carried an incredible 11-point streak, starting from December until February where he had points in 11 consecutive games. He has recorded 19 points in those 11 games, including winning the Swiss Cup.

After the WJC, Matthews raised his game again. He showed a lot more confidence with the puck and started to improve his defensive zone game a lot.

Tough Test to Face in the Playoffs

The ZSC Lions dominated the regular season and headed into the playoffs as the number one seeded team, facing eight seeded SC Bern in the first round. Certainly a tough test for the team, and arguably the toughest test for Matthews in his young career. Matthews, who never played in the postseason before, has been confronted with criticism for his possible inability to shine in big moments. This criticism came because of his invisible play in the deciding games of the WJC against Russia and Sweden, where he didn’t score a single point.

However, Matthews showed a different face in the first two contests of the Swiss playoffs, although ZSC lost both of the games. He was by far the best player on the ice for the ZSC Lions in both games, just dominating. Although the opponents played him hard, Matthews did not get intimidated and created a lot of scoring chances. He was one of the best players of his team in the quarter-final series, although getting swept by Bern in the end.

When Bern won the fourth straight game on Thursday, it was also clear that Matthews has played his last game with Zurich in the Swiss league and his stint came to an end. Matthews came to Switzerland being projected the first overall pick in 2016 and will leave the country as a much improved and matured young man on and off the ice, ready to play in the NHL next season. His first and probably lone season in the Swiss league beats every expectation. He has been Swiss Cup champion, was the team’s second best scorer, the fifth best goal scorer in the league, and has the second highest points per game number among all players with more than 11 games played. His Swiss journey ended Thursday but it is certainly a time he won’t forget, neither will the fans. It was a special year for Zurich. A special time with a special kid.

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