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2016 -
NHLers seeing Matthews develop into a leader
21.05.2016. TRAIKOS, MICHAEL. Montreal Gazette

The last time we checked, Auston Matthews was still 18 years old. And judging by the Justin Bieberinspired wardrobe that he was wearing while lounging around his team's hotel on Friday - tightfitting pants with intentional rips in the thighs, a loose-fitting T-shirt and shockingly white sneakers - he looks it.

On the ice, however, his age has been somewhat harder to define.

With each game Matthews has played in the world hockey championship, the American-born centre has seemingly aged a year. He might have looked like an in-over-his-head teenager in a 5-1 loss to Canada in his tournament debut, but after scoring the only goals for the U.S. in a 2-1 shootout win against the Czech Republic on Thursday, teammates were calling him a leader.

"I think it took him a little time to get comfortable in his own skin," said U.S. captain Matt Hendricks. "He's playing around some NHL players and maybe he didn't know that he needed to be 'The Man.' Now he's realizing that 'Hey, I can take this game over.' He definitely had an outstanding performance last night and I expect him to continue to get better and more confident."

The Matthews that Canada saw two weeks ago is not the same one they will meet in Saturday's semifinal.

"Individually I'm gaining more confidence each game, so I think that's always good," said Matthews. "I think as a team as well, each game you want to get better and learn from your mistakes and move forward. And I think that's exactly what we've done ... It's going to be a tough one (against Canada), but I think we're ready."

Matthews is not the only kid who has grown up at the world championship. While he leads the U.S. with five goals and eight points in eight games, Finland's Patrik Laine is tied for the tournament lead with seven goals and is tied for third in scoring with 11 points.

With both players pegged as the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in next month's NHL Draft, the superlatives surrounding their games are growing. Laine, whose one-timer has blown away goaltenders in hilarious fan-made memes, has been called the second coming of Alex Ovechkin. Not to be outdone, U.S. forward Nick Foligno has been comparing Matthews to Jonathan Toews, otherwise known as the most complete player in the world.

It's all a bit silly and probably only adds to the unreal and unfair ressure both players are under in a tournament where 18-yearolds are typically watching from home. And yet, if the players weren't able to handle this sort of thing, said Foligno, we wouldn't be making the comparisons in the first place.

"I'm not trying to sound like they're the same player," Foligno said of the Toews comparison. "It's just that's the kind of elements he can bring - that he does bring - that's all I was trying to do in saying that. I wasn't trying to put more pressure on him, although at this point is there really any more pressure on him?" For his part, Matthews seems unfazed. He's not your normal hockey player.

Instead of spending his draft year racking up points in major junior or the NCAA, Matthews went to Switzerland to challenge himself against men in a league considered a rung beneath the AHL. He scored 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games and was an MVP finalist.

When his season ended, Matthews called up skills coach Darryl Belfry, who works with John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and spent weeks reinventing his shot. It was a curious move for a player who broke Patrick Kane's season-single scoring record with the U.S. National Development Team. But that's where the Toews comparison comes from. He knows there is more work to do "I think moving onto the higher levels, it's all about adapting," he said. "Goalies, defencemen, forwards are going to be better at the next level."

During a video session after the win against Czech Republic, a clip of the young centre turning the puck over was shown in front of the entire team. But so was a clip of what happened immediately after: Matthews, head down, legs churning, chasing the play back into the defensive zone.

For his older teammates, that play was even more impressive than the two goals.

"He's a player who makes that much of a difference for a team, but sometimes the little things go unnoticed," said Foligno. "To me, that's like Jonathan Toews. You don't always realize the impact he makes in a game until after.

"I don't think you can question anything about Auston Matthews. It will be a tough challenge to play him in the NHL one day, but I'm glad he's on my team right now."

 
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