Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton / USA TODAY Sports

Know Your Enemy: Breaking Down Auston Matthews’ Hot Start

In case you haven’t heard yet, Auston Matthews has been pretty good early on in the 2018-19 season. He’s leading the league in scoring, and has a whopping nine goals in five games, which is something that only four other players have reached: Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Marleau, Mario Lemieux, and Mike Bossy.

That’s certainly not bad company.

Of course, this isn’t going to keep up. He’s on pace to score 147.6 goals this year, and the NHL record is Wayne Gretzky’s 92, in an era where goalies couldn’t stop a beach ball. It’s not happening.

But, the numbers are still floating around, and the hype has built up to a point where people who don’t cheer for the Leafs hate it. Pointing out that his shooting percentage is currently at 52.9% and that it’s not sustainable, as if we don’t already realize that this isn’t going to keep up. Apparently, we’re supposed to not enjoy the fact that this is happening as fans, we have to be sad because he’s going to regress.

But, it will. It happened to the two most recent entries on the “9 in 5” list, and it will happen to Matthews. And it just so happens that both of them will also be playing in the game tonight, with the Leafs playing Ovechkin’s capitals tonight.

So, let’s take a look at Ovechkin’s 2017-18 start and Marleau’s 2012-13 start when they had their hot starts to see what we can expect from Matthews going forward.

Jan 31, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; San Jose Sharks left wing Patrick Marleau (12) celebrates with center Joe Thornton (19) after scoring a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in the second period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Both players had different ways that they started their seasons. Marleau’s was a bit more consistent like Matthews, scoring two goals in each of his first four games, and getting goal number nine in the fifth game. Ovechkin, on the other hand, started like a bat out of hell, with a hat trick in his first game, and scoring four in his second game. After being held off the score sheet in game three, he got one in each of his next two games to reach the “9 in 5” mark.

At this point in their respective seasons, both were scoring at a rate that, oddly enough, was more sustainable than Matthews. Marleau had 24 shots on net, giving him a 37.5% shooting percentage, while Ovechkin had 29 shots, giving him a 31.03% shooting percentage. Still really unsustainable, but more than Matthews 52.9% on his 17 shots.

But, as quickly as their hot start began, the PDO monster caught up to them quickly. Marleau went scoreless for his next six games, and had only one goal in ten games, although his shot rate went down from 4.8 per game in his first five games to 2.6 over those next ten games. Ovechkin only scored one goal in his next eight games, although his shot rates only dropped from 5.8 per game to 4.25 per game, because he’s Ovechkin.

Odds are, this is something we’re going to see with Matthews over the next 8-10 game stretch, especially considering that they’re playing seven games against playoff teams from last year, including four against teams that played in the conference finals (Washington tonight, a home and home with Winnipeg, and a game against Vegas in November) in comparison to the five non-playoff teams they’ve played so far this season.

Schedule strength was another factor for Marleau and Ovechkin’s start as well. Marleau’s first four games were against teams that didn’t make the playoffs that season, and he scored one goal against Vancouver in game five, who made the playoffs, but the Sharks swept them in the first round. Ovechkin’s first two games were against Ottawa and Montreal, where he scored seven goals. His next three games were against Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey, who he only managed two goals in the three games.

The stretch after that was a bit different than what Matthews is about to face. In the ten game stretch that saw Marleau score only one goal, only five of those ten games were against playoff teams. In Ovechkin’s eight game stretch that saw him only score once, only two were against playoff teams.

Oct 9, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) scores a goal against the Dallas Stars during the second period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

So, what does this say about Matthews’ start. Not only is it luckier by means of shooting percentage, but Matthews also had an easier schedule during the streak, but he has a tougher one afterwards. So, it’s highly likely that he regresses hard.

Now, Marleau and Ovechkin didn’t play on a power play like Matthews has been, so maybe that means this *might* keep up. But it probably won’t.

Does that mean that you shouldn’t enjoy this hot start from Matthews? Of course not! The world is already a mess, hockey’s supposed to distract you from it. Enjoy Matthews destroying worlds so that you don’t have to think about how we’re destroying ours!

Now, where did Ovechkin and Marleau finish at the end of the season?

Ironically, despite the hot start, Ovechkin failed to hit the 50 goal plateau for the second season in a row, as he finished with 49 (ah, our societies obsession with round numbers). He still lead the league in scoring, as he had Patrik Laine beat by five goals.

Marleau was a different story. In the remaining 43 games of the lockout shortened season, he only score eight goals, finishing the year with 17. That had him tied for 28th in the league with Patrik Berglund, Nail Yakupov, Marion Hossa, Evander Kane, Matt Duchene, and Martin St. Louis. He didn’t even lead his team in goals, as Logan Couture finished tied for 10th with 21 goals (he only had three goals in those first five games, by the way).

It’s more likely that Matthews’ season finishes like Ovechkin’s than Marleau’s, but even then, 50 still isn’t guaranteed. If he keeps up his current shot rate of 3.4 per game, he’d have to shoot 15.66% to score the remaining 41 goals that he needs. That’s not crazy for Matthews, who has shot 14.3% and 18.2% in his first two seasons, but it’s still not guaranteed.

So, what’s the takeaway? Enjoy this while you can, because it’s not going to happen forever. But still, don’t watch every game in perpetual fear anticipating it’s end, just enjoy it in the moment. Life sucks too much to start taking the fun out of sports.

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