After playing in the NHL All-Star Game over the weekend, 19-year-old Auston Matthews flew from Los Angeles straight to Dallas. Fittingly, the first-overall pick in the 2016 entry draft arrived a day ahead of his team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, as he’s led the storied franchise’s climb toward respectability and a playoff berth all season long.
Matthews enters the game as the Leafs’ leader in total goals (23), game-winning goals (5) and shots (163). His 20 even-strength goals are tied for tops in the league. In short, the kid is good.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the rookie’s rise to NHL stardom lies in his hockey roots. For those who haven’t heard the story, the Reader’s Digest Condensed version is this: Matthews grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona, where an uncle introduced him to hockey at a very early age by taking him to a Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes game.
Matthews played both hockey and baseball early on, but soon abandoned America’s national pastime for Canada’s Great Game. After two years with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, the phenom from a non-traditional market took the road less traveled to the NHL, eschewing both the college and major junior routes for a year in the Swiss professional league. At age 18, he spent the 2015-16 season playing alongside and against grown men before being drafted by the Leafs last June.
For many years, some Northern fans and media members have voiced opposition to the very existence of non-traditional market teams, arguing hockey doesn’t belong in places like Florida, Texas or Arizona. Auston Matthews is a living, breathing counterpoint to that argument, as he’d likely be a baseball player today, were it not for the Coyotes. As the Leafs’ rookie makes his Big D debut tonight, Dallas Stars fans have to wonder how much longer they’ll have to wait to see an equally-talented native Texan on the ice.
Toronto Maple Leafs at Dallas Stars
American Airlines Center – 7:30 pm CST
Broadcast channels – FS-SW, SNO
2016-17 Season Series: First Meeting of the Season
Toronto Maple Leafs: 23-15-9 – 55 Points
Road Record: 11-7-6
Hot Players: Nazem Kadri, Nikita Zaitsev and Frederik Andersen
Key Injuries: Morgan Rielly, Ben Smith, Joffrey Lupul and Stephane Robidas
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Connor Brown
James van Riemsdyk – Tyler Bozak – Mitch Marner
Leo Komarov – Nazem Kadri – William Nylander
Matt Martin – Frederik Gauthier – Nikita Soshnikov
Jake Gardiner – Connor Carrick
Martin Marincin – Nikita Zaitsev
Matt Hunwick – Roman Polak
Dallas Stars: 20-20-10 – 50 Points
Home Record: 13-7-6
Hot Players: Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Patrick Eaves
Key Injuries: Johnny Oduya, Jamie Oleksiak, Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Jason Spezza
Devin Shore – Radek Faksa – Patrick Sharp
Antoine Roussel – Cody Eakin – Patrick Eaves
Lauri Korpikoski – Adam Cracknell – Brett Ritchie
Esa Lindell – John Klingberg
Dan Hamhuis – Julius Honka
Jordie Benn – Stephen Johns
[miptheme_dropcap style=”normal” color=”#222222″ background=””]1)[/miptheme_dropcap] After missing two games with a lower-body injury, Radek Faksa will play for the Stars tonight. The defensive center’s return is a bit of great news for the club, as the high-flying Leafs average 3.06 goals per game.
[miptheme_dropcap style=”normal” color=”#222222″ background=””]2)[/miptheme_dropcap] The visitors will be without defenseman Morgan Rielly for at least one more game. Rielly skated in Dallas Tuesday morning, but isn’t quite game-ready. He’s now targeting a return Thursday, against St. Louis. That means Martin Marincin will again be paired with Nikita Zaitsev.
[miptheme_dropcap style=”normal” color=”#222222″ background=””]3)[/miptheme_dropcap] The Maple Leafs own the league’s third-best power play and penalty kill. Asked what that means for the Stars, winger Antoine Roussel said, “Don’t take stupid penalties and play hard still. They’re good at it, so try to limit the time they’re on it.”
[miptheme_dropcap style=”normal” color=”#222222″ background=””]4)[/miptheme_dropcap] Curtis McKenzie, Jiri Hudler and Patrik Nemeth are the Stars’ healthy scratches tonight. Of the three, McKenzie’s is the most curious scratch. The left wing has played with Adam Cracknell and Brett Ritchie of late, and coach Lindy Ruff has been very complimentary of that line. Against the Leafs, Lauri Korpikoski will probably take McKenzie’s place, giving the line a bit more speed.
Matt blogged about all things hockey at On Goal Analysis/The OGA Blogs from 2008-2014 and has written several travel articles for The Dallas Morning News. He began covering the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers for The Hockey Writers in August 2015. Matt is also writing a biography of “Tex” Rickard, the Texas cowboy who founded the New York Rangers and the Madison Square Garden Corporation.