So, too, is Team North America, easily the darlings of the World Cup of Hockey following a 4-1 win over Finland on Sunday night and a challenger, perhaps, to Team Canada — if not as tournament favourite then as crowd favourite.
Matthews saw his debut at the rink that will be his home as a Maple Leaf go down as a victory for any son who never beat his dad in a game of keep-away. He got the biggest cheer of anyone on the ice during the introductions, with the weight of Leaf Nation perhaps weighing more heavily on him than any expectations for Team North America.
“There’s a lot more hype about him than when I made my debut,” said Leafs and North America defenceman Morgan Rielly. “The fans are very happy he’s on this team. He has a chance to make big impact on Team North America, and moving forward the Leafs as well.
“He’s ready for it. He’s very mature. He’ll be fine.”
And the roar for the young swashbucklers — a World Cup invention made up of Americans and Canadians who haven’t had a 24th birthday yet — grew louder with every pass and play in a wildly entertaining effort.
“I thought he was going to have a hell of a game, and he did,” North America coach Todd McLellan said of Matthews. “There was no fear in him. He hasn’t played his first NHL game, but he’s an NHL player. He belongs.
“There’s no ‘Let’s babysit him.’ Let him play. He’s got all the skills and he’s playing the right way.”
The first goal came on the power play, and it kind of has a magical sound to it. McDavid fed Matthews, who rushed down the left wing, avoided a check and got a shot on Pekka Rinne, with Jack Eichel burying the rebound.
It didn’t quite have the beauty or the drama of that 1987 Canada Cup golden goal, Wayne Gretzky to Mario Lemieux. But for a younger generation of hockey fans, McDavid to Matthews to Eichel sounds pretty special.
Matthews picked up a point in his third shift at the Air Canada Centre.
Two goals were disallowed in the first — the puck didn’t fully cross the line on one, goalie interference on another — but the North Americans sent a message that they can create something from nothing. McDavid routinely picked the pockets of his NHL elders on Finland, Mikko Koivu being a favoured victim.
Through the second, the North Americans simply swirled through Finland’s defence, with Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin adding goals and making it look easy. Stanley Cup-winning goalie Matt Murray held the fort for the young team, surrendering only a meaningless third-period goal to Valtteri Filppula.
“They really took it to us and showed their individual skill, but also as a team they were extremely dangerous,” goalie Rinne said. “I’m not going to take anything away from them, but we weren’t ready to go. We made too many mistakes.
The backstory of Sunday’s game pitted Matthews, the top pick in the June draft who just turned 19, against Patrik Laine, the No. 2 pick by the Winnipeg Jets. It’s clear that neither like talking about No. 1 vs. No. 2 debate.
“It’s Team North America versus Team Finland,” Matthews said before the game. “We’re not making too much of it.”
Laine had been the more colourful of the two, declaring before the draft that he should go first. But that kind of talk has died down from the youngster.
“It was definitely a goal for myself,” Matthews said of playing in the World Cup. “I knew going into the world championships that it was kind of my tryout, you could say. I didn’t go into it putting too much pressure on myself. I just wanted to go out there and play. It worked out well.”
“He got better every game,” said McLellan. “We’ve talked about his maturity level, his skill set, the way he plays the game. He’s physical. In baseball, they call it a five-tool player. That’s Auston.”