Wendel Clark had a quick response when he was asked when he first thought his Toronto Maple Leafs record for most goals as a rookie would be eclipsed.
"The second period of the first game," Clark said Tuesday night, shortly after Auston Matthews scored his 35th goal of the season to set a new franchise record for most goals by a rookie in one NHL season. It was the first goal in what turned out to be a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers that kept the Leafs one point ahead of the Boston Bruins, who beat the Nashville Predators 4-1, in the fight for third place in the Atlantic Division.
Matthews, 19, served notice in that first game of the 2016-17 season that, true to his billing as the first overall pick of the 2016 NHL entry draft, he was no ordinary rookie. By the second period of his first NHL game, Matthews had four goals, starting a season-long race with Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets for the rookie scoring lead. Matthews has the lead for now at 35, as Laine (34) did not score in the Jets' 4-3 shootout win over the New Jersey Devils.
Clark was, like Matthews, a first over all draft pick. He scored 34 goals in 1985-86, also as a 19-year-old, and now works as a community representative for the team. Clark was quite happy to see his record broken because it means his beloved Leafs are on the rise.
"Hey, that's good," he said during the first intermission. "If we're going to be any good, we need these young guys breaking [records].
"He's got a great class of kids to be playing with. It's fun to watch as an ex-player, to watch all the guys playing together."
Two rookies fittingly drew the assists on Matthews' goal at 11:54 of the first period: Zach Hyman and William Nylander. Hyman dug the puck out from behind the net and fed Matthews in the slot for the goal.
"Just to be in the same sentence as a guy like Wendel Clark is a big honour," Matthews said. "A lot of credit goes to my linemates. All season, they've been special. Hyman's been there all season, he brings the same mentality to each game. He never takes a game off."
The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Matthews reminds Clark of the last great centre the Leafs had, one he was traded for in the summer of 1994 and then played with from 1996 to 1998 when Clark was brought back to the Leafs. Not a bad comparison, considering Mats Sundin is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"He's got the hands of a little guy, like the old days," Clark said. "He's got a great set of hands for a big guy.
"[Matthews] sometimes does a lot of things like Mats does. He can be coming across the blueline, he's dangerous by himself. Plus, he plays with guys and he can make passes and plays, he sees the ice well. He has a goal scorer's touch. He can either be shooting like this goal [Tuesday night] where it's open in front of the net and he slides it in or he can be sliding something out of the corner. See, goal scorers score from everywhere on anything and they're usually not in places you think."
What Matthews and his youthful teammates need to work on, judging by Tuesday's game against the Panthers, is consistency. They dominated the Panthers in the first period, outshot them 13-3 and took a 2-0 lead on goals from Matthews and Leo Komarov. But then they almost handed the game back to the Panthers, a non-playoff team that played the previous night and then lost starting goaltender James Reimer to a head injury midway through the second period.
Fortunately for the Leafs, backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney proved to be an adequate replacement for Frederik Andersen, who is day-to-day with a head injury. McElhinney calmed the fears of a fan base worried about seeing a playoff spot slip away by coming up big in the second period when the Leafs let the Panthers take charge of the game.
McElhinney made 11 saves in the second as the Leafs were outshot 12-6. The only shot to elude him was a redirection by Reilly Smith late in the period. Then, after the Leafs took a 3-1 lead on a shorthanded goal by Hyman early in the third period, McElhinney remained steady for the rest of the game, although Jaromir Jagr tightened things up with a power-play goal in the last minute.
Matthews' goal wasn't the only Leafs rookie record established in the game. Hyman's shorthanded goal was his fourth of the season, also a franchise record.
Reimer, a former Leaf, may have sustained a concussion when he was hit by Leafs centre Brian Boyle. He was trying to cover the puck at the side of his net just as Boyle cut in. Boyle accidentally hit Reimer on the head with his hip and the goaltender lay on the ice for several minutes. Reimer was able to skate to the dressing room under his own power but did not return to the game.
There was one unusual play near the end of the second period – referee Kevin Pollack reversed a penalty call on the Leafs. He called defenceman Roman Polak for high-sticking but when the play was shown on the big scoreboard video screen, it showed the Panther player was hit on the head by the puck, not Polak's stick. Pollack waved off his penalty call, something that has happened just a handful of times.
"After the play I went after the referee and said, 'Thanks, you didn't have to do that,' " Polak said. "He's like, 'Everybody's making a mistake. If we make a mistake why not get it better. ' It was a classy move."
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was a little less effusive.
"Well that's happened a few times since I've been in the league. They got it right," he said.