NEW YORK – Before Auston Matthews stomped along and formed an even better club by himself Wednesday night, only four players in NHL history had ever scored hat tricks in their debuts. One of them–the most recent one, six years ago–now sits in his locker at Madison Square Garden, after the Rangers' season-opening 5-3 win over the Islanders, remembering what he can.
“Feels like a long time ago,” forward Derek Stepan says. “When you’re in the moment, you don’t really know what’s going on. The puck just seems to find you.”
Stepan laughs. He’s thinking about the highlights he watched Wednesday night, when the 2016 No. 1 pick filleted the Senators with four goals, all before second intermission. “Mine was a much uglier hat trick than his. Much uglier.”
This is fairly accurate. Fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, Stepan made New York’s roster for opening night–Oct. 9, 2010, in Buffalo–but still worried about job security.
“No way you can’t be nervous,” he says. “I was a bubble guy. I was just trying to make the team. Scoring was the least of my worries.”
Midway through the first period, the puck rimmed around to defenseman Dan Girardi, who whipped a wrister from the blue line. The shot hit Stepan, zoomed to his right, banked off Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, and slid into the net.
“I wanted it to be that it bounced in off the other team, because I think that’s how everyone scores their first one,” Stepan said at the time “You know, off the shin pad, off the elbow pad, off someone else.”
The others came smoother. With roughly five minutes left in the second period, Stepan gathered a rebound to the right of the crease and cleverly chipped it over goalie Ryan Miller, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner at the time. Three minutes later, Sean Avery found Stepan in the slot. Soon, a single hat hit the ice. Television cameras captured his mother, stepfather, and then girlfriend/current wife cheering, surrounded by quiet Sabres fans in the stands. Unlike Matthews’ Maple Leafs, who lost in overtime, the Rangers beat Buffalo with ease, 6-3.
“I remember it being really special for him and the team, everyone rallying around him,” Girardi says. “It was something that doesn’t happen very often.” Of course, the veteran can’t help but pivot to the kid who outshined everyone. “Obviously watching what happened yesterday, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime play by that guy there. I think everyone’s going to have their eyes on him from now on.” (Thanks to NBCSports moving Matthews’ home debut onto national television, more certainly will Friday.)
When the Rangers returned to the locker room, reporters had history ready. Stepan soon learned he had joined Montreal’s Alex Smart (1943), Quebec’s Real Cloutier (1979) and Dallas’ Fabian Brunstromm (2008) as the only players to enter the NHL in such explosive fashion. (Trivia interlude: Avery had a secondary assist for Brunstromm, making him the only player with assists on multiple debut hat tricks.) At the time, Stepan was also the first to do so on the road. But even then, the magnitude of his magical night didn’t quite resonate.
“It’s later,” Stepan says. “It’s down the road, when you’re out of the building and get to exhale. You look at your phone. I got back to the airport, I sat down and it just sinks in. Like, 'What the heck just happened?'”
Even though Matthews entered training camp far from the roster bubble, all but locked into Mike Babcock’s opening-day lineup from the moment Toronto called his name, Stepan figures that Wednesday night in Ottawa the teenager felt something similar.
“Right now, I’m sure he’s just thinking about his next game,” Stepan says. “Maybe later down the road he’ll look back on it and go, 'Geez, that was insane.'”
The league would already agree. Players rushed to tweet commentary on Matthews’ masterpiece, which included a thorough undressing of Ottawa’s Norris Trophy-caliber captain, Erik Karlsson. Apparently out of fear, Florida goalie Roberto Luongo abdicated all goaltending responsibilities against the Leafs for the rest of the season. Minor leaguer Garret Sparks compared Matthews to “one of the 99 overall” creations from an NHL video game.
“F---ing unbelievable,” one Eastern Conference player texted SI during the game. “Kid’s got a lot of game, that’s for sure.”
Amid the clamor was Tampa forward Ryan Callahan, who was on the Rangers for Stepan’s hat trick.
“You jerk,” Stepan texted him back, smiling as he recounted the story. This mirrored the ribbing teammates started giving him six years ago in Buffalo, particularly after he twice missed out on a fourth goal–shooting high on a breakaway, and hitting the post of an empty net.
In this way, Stepan’s hat trick helped the “bubble guy”–who wound up playing all 82 games that season –grow closer with fellow Rangers.
“Coming in as a rookie, out of college, you’re trying to get to know him better,” Girardi says. “As a rookie you have to fit in, take your lumps, this and that. It showed he could play in this league, no problem. It was a joke: ‘It’s not that hard of a league, right?’”
Again, here comes the pivot.
“I’m guessing that’s what the feeling is for ol’ Auston there. The game seems pretty easy for him right now."