Leafs' Matthews on track for memorable rookie season

TORONTO (AP) At almost the halfway mark, Auston Matthews is on pace to finish with one of the best rookie seasons in NHL history.

The Toronto Maple Leafs' 19-year-old star scored twice, including the overtime winner, in Sunday's Centennial Classic and leads all first-year players with 20 goals and 32 points through 36 games.

The No. 1 pick of the 2016 draft is on pace for 46 goals, a mark reached by only six rookies in NHL history - Alex Ovechkin the most recent in a mostly Hall of Fame group that includes Teemu Selanne (76), Mike Bossy (53), Wayne Gretzky (51), Joe Nieuwendyk (51) and Blair MacDonald, who was 26 years old when he tallied 46 for Edmonton.

Matthews accomplishing the feat might be more impressive.

Everyone on that group, save Gretzky, was older than Matthews as a rookie.

And Matthews is performing in an era when the goalies are much better and scoring is down substantially.

When Selanne tallied 76 goals for the Winnipeg Jets, for example, teams were averaging 3.63 goals per game with an average save percentage of .885.

Now, the average is 2.73 goals per game with an average save percentage of .914.

Matthews isn't doing most of the scoring on the power play as Ovechkin did with Washington, when power-play opportunities rose substantially amid rule changes following the 2004-05 lockout.

The Russian winger scored 21 of his 52 goals with the man advantage, while adding 28 at even strength.

Ovechkin finished with more than 450 minutes of power-play time. Matthews is on pace for just over 220 with clubs averaging almost three fewer power plays per game.

Matthews is on track for the second-most prolific rookie scoring season at even strength.

He's on pace for 39 even-strength goals, which would trail only Selanne's 52. The Great One had 37.

Eric Lindros, also age 19 for Philadelphia in the `92-93 season, scored 32 goals at even strength in only 61 games, but did so in a league with more offense and power plays and poorer goaltending.

For Matthews to reach these stats in this era at this age, again, makes his potential feats all the more striking.

''I don't think I'm surprised anymore,'' Zach Hyman, Matthews' season-long linemate, said. ''When you have a shot like he does and his skillset, where he's able to get open, and when you take as many shots as he does - it's hard to get that many shots and he's able to generate tons of shots.

''With his shot, he's going to score a lot of goals.''

Matthews, to that point, is again heading toward mostly uncharted waters in terms of the number of shots, averaging 3.7 per game and on pace for more than 300.

Only four rookies in NHL history have had that many shots in a season: Ovechkin with a record 425, Selanne at 387, Dale Hawerchuk at 339 and Brian Leetch at 308.

Matthews doesn't seem to be overly lucky either. He's scoring on 15 percent of his shots, a fairly sustainable number.

''He's got a skillset that allows him to do things that a lot of other people can't do,'' defenseman Morgan Rielly said. ''But on top of that he's got a good brain, he works hard and he's been playing with good teammates.''

Perhaps seeking to calm the growing hype, Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock noted that how a Matthews-led line struggled Sunday at points against Detroit's top unit.

Henrik Zetterberg's line struck for three goals when Matthews was on the ice, including the game-tying tally from Anthony Mantha with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation.

Despite that, Matthews finished at almost 50 percent puck possession.

The Arizona-born center is struggling in the faceoff circle, among the league's worst at 44.2 percent, following a 41 percent performance against the Wings.

Still, Babcock has started matching Matthews against top lines in recent weeks, an uptick in his responsibility for the Leafs.

Babcock protected Matthews in the early months this season by starting him in the offensive zone as much as possible, often against lesser lines and defensive pairings, but that's stopped of late.

Matthews had a 17 percent offensive zone start percentage against the Wings.

''I don't look after him at all anymore,'' Babcock said.

Beyond the potentially prolific NHL marks, Matthews is also consequently on track to shatter the Leafs rookie records for goals and points; Wendel Clark had 34 goals in `85-86, Peter Ihnacak had 66 points in `82-83.

''He's just going to get better,'' Babcock said. ''He's going to get quicker through the neutral zone. He's going to play with more pace. He's going to understand more. He's just going to get better.''

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