MOSCOW, RUSSIA – Auston Matthews looks poised to wrap up the 2016 World Championship right where he started—as the consensus No. 1 draft pick who will almost certainly be chosen by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
For all of his obvious talent, Matthews hadn’t shown North American fans his ability to take control of his game in this tournament until he skated onto his biggest stage so far—in the do-or-die quarterfinal against the team from the Czech Republic.
The Czechs finished first in their preliminary-round Group A with a record of 5-1-1-0. Their only loss came in a shootout against Denmark. Meanwhile, the Americans ranked fourth in Group B with a record of 3-0-1-3. The U.S. snuck into the quarterfinal after losing outright to all three teams that finished above them in their group’s standings—Canada, Finland, and Germany. The American wins all came against the group’s lowest-ranked squads—Belarus, France, and Hungary.
In the quarterfinal game, none of that mattered. Czech goalie Dominik Furch had given up just two goals in his three previous starts and foiled every American shooter he faced on Thursday—except Matthews.
After a penalty-shot goal by Tomas Zohorna got the Czechs on the scoreboard late in the first period, Matthews became the only player in the game to put the puck in the net during regular play. At the 1:27 mark of the second period, the 18-year-old took a pass from Frank Vatrano and beat Czech defenceman Radim Simek wide before opening Furch up and sliding the puck through his five-hole.
Both Furch and U.S. netminder Keith Kinkaid shut the door the rest of the way until Matthews played hero as the only player to score in the shootout—ending the Czechs’ tournament and giving the Americans a chance to play for a medal at the World Championship for the second straight year.
For the game-winner, Matthews went wide to his left, then slid the puck just under Furch’s right skate.
Shootout goals count towards individual stat totals in international hockey. Matthews now heads into Saturday’s quarterfinal against Canada as Team USA’s leading scorer, with 5-3-8 in eight games.
Not bad for a player who has mostly been praised in this tournament for his play away from the puck.
“Sounds a lot like a Jonathan Toews if you ask me,” said U.S. assistant captain Nick Foligno of the Columbus Blue Jackets when he was asked if Matthews’ most impressive traits during the preliminary round were his two-way play, faceoff skills, and backchecking tenacity.
“It’s a tough comparison. I don’t want to put that on him,” Foligno continued, “But when you watch him play—and I’ve got to play against Jonathan for a long time now—you kind of draw those comparisons. He doesn’t really blow you away sometimes with his flashiness but he’s always on the scoresheet, he’s always making a difference in the game. You can kind of see that in Auston. It’s pretty exciting for whoever gets him in the draft.”
Earlier in the tournament, there was talk that perhaps Matthews was being surpassed as the top draft prospect by Finland’s super sniper Patrik Laine. After the quarterfinal games, Laine was tied with Sweden’s Gustav Nyquist as the world championships’ top scorer with seven goals, tied for third place overall with 11 points. Laine’s flashy playing style—which is reminiscent of his idol, Alex Ovechkin—was generating more on-ice excitement than Matthews’ diligence, prompting some speculation that he might be a tempting target for the Leafs.
Two games remain for both teams, so Matthews and Laine will each get more chances to add to their narratives for this tournament—their last competitive action before draft weekend on June 24-25.
Laine will face Ovechkin for the first time in his young career when the U.S. takes on Russia at 9 a.m. ET on Saturday at Moscow’s Ice Palace. Matthews gets another opportunity to show his stuff in the late game against Canada (1 p.m. ET) after a low-key performance in the U.S. team’s 5-1 loss to the Canadians in the round-robin opener back on May 6.
“I think it took him a little time to get comfortable in his own skin,” U.S. captain Matt Hendricks told Michael Traikos of the National Post on Friday in Moscow. “He’s playing around some NHL players and maybe he didn’t know that he needed to be ‘The Man.’ Now he’s realizing that ‘Hey, I can take this game over.’ He definitely had an outstanding performance last night (against the Czechs), and I expect him to continue on and continue to get better and continue to get more confident.”