In 2006, Alex Ovechkin scored one of the greatest goals in NHL history. He was a 21-year-old rookie, and the play put him on the map as one of the most exciting young players in North American sports. He’s remained in that pantheon ever since.
Auston Matthews had his “Ovechkin Moment” on Wednesday night. I’m not talking about all four goals he scored in his debut (an NHL record). I’m just talking about his second goal.
You know. THAT one.
The nuttiest thing about this play is how quickly everything happens. This isn’t your typical slow-developing, “everyone in the exact right position to make this happen” play. This is just one dude making about six great decisions before anyone else knows what the hell is going on.
So we broke down every single one of those quick moments to show exactly why Matthews’ hockey sense already sets him apart from 90 percent of his peers.
Matthews doesn’t even touch the puck to start this play if he doesn’t bat down a hard pass defenseman Morgan Rielly sends from the opposite blue line.
Nobody talked about this part while gawking at the goal last night. It’s actually one of the more remarkable aspects, and like everything else in this sequence it happens in the blink of an eye. It was just a taste of the next 10 seconds of hand-eye coordination madness that ensued.
Matthews is pretty vulnerable at this point. He needs to corral the puck and make a zone entry in the span of about a second. As you can see in the GIF above, Senators winger Mark Stone is already all over him and ready to strip the puck away on the backhand.
But Matthews, already spinning a bit, carries his momentum and taps the puck between Stone’s legs.
The wherewithal to analyze the space and time to make that play in half a second is ... I can’t explain it.
But here comes Sens winger Mike Hoffman to clean up Stone’s mess. AND THERE MATTHEWS GOES AGAIN.
Matthews doesn’t even think here; he senses pressure and flicks his wrist instinctively to nutmeg Hoffman, too.
And off he goes.
Give Hoffman some credit, here. He recovers from that deke about as well as any winger could. And he makes the right play: Chase, take one whack at the puck to dislodge it, and then remove Matthews from the play along the boards.
We need to use another angle to figure out how Matthews gets out of this, because it’s great.
Matthews makes two subtle moves here that I am in love with. He knows Hoffman has recovered and will close in. So he flicks the puck ahead of him against the wall, dips his shoulder and lets momentum carry him forward.
Hoffman can’t reach the puck. Hoffman can’t even up with Matthews and ride him out of the play. And Matthews has escaped yet again.
But there’s two last layers of defenders for Matthews to wade through. And the next one happens to be Erik Karlsson. You know, one of the best defensemen in the league. He’s usually the brainy player two steps ahead of everyone else on the ice. And again, he makes the right play here!
Watch how Karlsson reaches the puck and turns to protect both it and himself. He’s anticipating a check to the back to knock him from possession like any other defender would.
Instead, Matthews just keeps moving. Side step and strip.
He made that look so easy because it was the last thing Karlsson expected. What rookie makes THAT decision and executes it THAT quickly?
Now the league will know better. It’s also worth noting that Karlsson eventually burned Matthews for the overtime winner. Revenge!
But for now ...
HE’S HOME FREE
The last line of defense for Ottawa: goalie Craig Anderson. Ottawa’s other defenseman lays out properly to prevent a cross-ice pass to William Nylander, who would have an easy tap-in on Anderson’s weak side.
Notice something? Matthews gets five feet away and Anderson’s five-hole is wide open. The target area is two meters wide.
Matthews used to bulls-eye womp rats in his T-16 back home, they're not much bigger than two meters.
Easy. Just about the only part of this special play that didn’t require a special play to make it happen. A lot of hockey players have the stick-handling abilities to pull some of these moves off. But so few of them have the hockey IQ to pull it off in the middle of a neutral and offensive zone clogged with veteran defenders.
And only one of them could’ve pulled it off as a 19-year-old in his first NHL game.