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What’s the ceiling for Auston Matthews this season?

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Five games into the 2018-19 NHL season and already the Toronto Maple Leafs look like everything they were advertised to be.

Specifically, they have been an offensive juggernaut that few — if any — teams in the NHL will be able to match up with in terms of offensive firepower when they are clicking on all cylinders.

After Thursday’s 5-3 win in Detroit they have already scored 25 goals on the season and have scored at least five in each of their past three games. And they are doing this without one of their top talents in restricted free agent William Nylander, who remains unsigned.

Leading the way has been the team’s newly created two-headed monster at center where Auston Matthews, the franchise cornerstone, and John Tavares, the summer’s big free agent score, have spent the first week of the league making a mockery out of opposing defenses.

As of Friday, the pair have combined to score 15 of the Maple Leafs’ 25 goals, while at least one of them has factored into the scoring (either scoring the goal or assisting on it) on 21 of the 25.

While Tavares has been great, Matthews is the one that is getting the most attention because he literally can not stop scoring goals. With two more on Thursday he is now up to nine goals on the season and has not only found the back of the net in every game, he has scored two goals in four of them.

This has done a couple of things.

First, it has sent what is already an over-the-top hyperbolic Toronto media into overdrive as Matthews’ name is now being thrown into the discussion with Connor McDavid as the league’s best player, and there is the inevitable talk about just how many goals he can score this season. If he continues on this pace he would score approximately 147 goals!

Second — and this makes a lot of the current talk and hype pretty understandable — it is put him in some pretty rare company.

Nine goals in five games is obviously a pretty big deal because, let’s face it, that’s a lot of damn goals no matter when it happens. But when you do it at the start of the season it really gets a lot of attention.

How great is this start? Since the start of the 1987-88 season Matthews is just the fourth different player to score at least nine goals in his team’s first five games, joining a list that includes Alex Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux, and, quite surprisingly, his current Toronto teammate … Patrick Marleau.

Over that same stretch only one other player has scored at least eight goals in his team’s first five games (you will never guess the name) and only 12 others have scored at least seven.

Let’s take a look at those players and what they ended up finishing each season with.

Look at … Mark Parrish?! … with eight goals to open the 2001-02 season.

A few things to note: Marleau’s season was the lockout shortened 2012-13 year, and if you were to project his final numbers out over 82 games it would have put him on a 28-goal pace. John LeClair (2002-03) and Tomas Hertl (2013-14) also had injury shortened seasons that impacted their numbers. Hertl’s start in 2013-14 was the same year he broke Martin Biron and the New York Rangers with that between-the-legs goal as part of a four-goal game.

But what stands out most about this list is that all of these players inevitably slowed down dramatically, with the possible exceptions of Lemieux and Mogilny, as they were the only two on this list that ended up topping the 50-goal mark after their seasons.

Even Ovechkin — for my money the greatest and most dominant goal-scorer in NHL history — failed to hit the 50-goal mark last season after he opened the year with nine goals in his first five games.

The reason for this is simple: All of these stretches are incredible hot streaks where great players go on an unstoppable tear where everything goes in. Those stretches do not last long. Matthews, for example, has literally scored on half of his shots so far this season. You don’t need me to tell you why that is going to cool off.

Over the first two years of his career Matthews was a 15.8 percent shooter, which is still an obscenely high number for the NHL, and there is reason to believe he can sustain that number because he is that good. Let’s just say, hypothetically he spends the remainder of the season scoring on 15.8 of the shots he takes, as he has for his career. And let’s say he averages the same 3.25 shots per game that he has averaged for his career. Those numbers come out to another 39-40 goals, which would put him right in that 50-goal range. And if he manages to do that everyone in Toronto should be ecstatic because 50-goals is a nearly unreachable plateau in the NHL these days.

But that is probably his ceiling.

He is not a 50-in-50 player. He is probably not going to score 60 or more.

I do not point this out to rain on the parade or be some soul-less analytical person that screams UNSUSTAINABLE just because a player is on a hot streak.

Of course streaks like this are unsustainable. But that does not make them any less fun or impressive to watch. And if anything, these “unsustainable” bursts from players like Matthews are the exact thing that makes them great. I’ve beaten this drum so many times over the years that I even hate myself for saying it again, but great goal-scorers don’t score goals on a consistent basis. They score them in bunches like this. They go on streaks like this where everything goes in the net, and then it gets followed up by an eight-or nine-game stretch where they can’t buy a goal.

There is nothing wrong with that. Do not let anyone try to tell you there is something wrong with that.

Too many players (almost always top-tier players) get criticized for being too streaky or inconsistent. On the contrary, streakiness like this is good and “consistency,” at least as it relates to production, is vastly overrated. If you have a player that produces the same thing on a consistent it means they are not capable of reaching this type of level for any stretch of games.

And it is this type of stretch that makes players like Matthews (or Ovechkin, or Sidney Crosby, or Steven Stamkos, or any other top-tier superstar) so valuable.

When they go on a stretch like this it is not only incredibly fun and jaw-dropping to watch, it also carries a team to wins.

So, no. Auston Matthews is not going to keep scoring goals like this.

He does have a ceiling this season that isn’t the billion goal pace he is currently on.

That does not mean you should not enjoy it and appreciate it while it is happening. Because we all know once he hits that inevitable goal slump (and god forbid that slump happens in a playoff series) the same Toronto media that is going wild right now is going to rip him apart like a pack of ravenous wolves.

That won’t be as fun.

So let’s enjoy Auston Matthews now and watch to see what else he is capable of this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Playoff injuries continue to pile up for Hurricanes

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As the Carolina Hurricanes hope to make it a long and successful Round 1 series against the Washington Capitals, and a deep run during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs in general, they’re not just facing talented opponents. They’re also facing “themselves,” and not just in a mental sense — they have to overcome the limitations on their own bodies.

Injuries are one of the top hurdles you have to overcome alongside bad bounces and hot goalies.

The good news for Carolina so far in Game 4 (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) is that the Hurricanes went up 1-0 with a Warren Foegele goal just 17 seconds into the contest.

The bad news is that while that good trend of a hot streak continued, a negative trend of injuries also persists. Carolina already came into Game 4 without Andrei Svechnikov because of that ill-fated fight against Alex Ovechkin, and they were also missing beefy forward Micheal Ferland thanks to an upper-body injury.

It’s unclear if Jordan Martinook will end up missing significantly time, but he needed help off the ice after an awkward bump into the boards. Martinook briefly returned toward the end of the first period, yet was not seen on the Hurricanes bench to begin the second, and the team eventually announced that he would not return for Game 4.

(You can see that unfortunate bump in the video above this post’s headline.)

Martinook isn’t a huge loss on his own, but when you consider that part of Carolina’s strength is depth and scoring by committee, the ice packs are really piling up. Consider that:

  • Martinook scored a career-high 15 goals and tied a career-high with 25 points this season, and had an assist coming into Game 4.
  • Ferland finished fourth in team scoring with 40 points, including 17 goals, and may have hit 20+ if he wasn’t limited to 71 games played.
  • Svechnikov’s been a fantastic rookie who’s flourished as he’s gained Rod Brind’Amour’s favor as the season went along. Svechnikov generated 20 goals and 37 points during the regular season, and had two goals and one assist for three points in his first three playoff games.

Those are three players who bring different abilities to the table, from grinding to having the sort of sniping skills that can break a tight postseason skirmish open – and the Hurricanes have to hope that most, if not all, of them can return to the lineup as they hope to push this Round 1 match longer.

See if the Hurricanes can tie this series at 2-2 by winning Game 4 against the Capitals, even with a shorthanded group, on NBCSN right now.

[WATCH LIVE]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Barkov, Monahan, O’Reilly are 2019 Lady Byng Trophy finalists

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Next up in the NHL’s 2018-19 awards announcements is the Lady Byng Trophy, which is awarded “to the player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.”

The nominees, who are voted for by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association at the conclusion of the regular season, are Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers, Sean Monahan of the Calgary Flames, and Ryan O'Reilly of the St. Louis Blues.

O’Reilly, who won the award in 2014 and was a finalist in 2018, was announced on Wednesday as one of the three Selke Trophy finalists.

Lady Byng, wife of Canada’s Governor General at the time, presented the Lady Byng Trophy during the 1924-25 season. After Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers won the award seven times in eight seasons, he was given the trophy to keep and Lady Byng donated another trophy in 1936. After Lady Byng’s death in 1949, the NHL presented a new trophy, changing the name to the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Case For Aleksander Barkov: The Panthers forward, who was also a finalist in 2016 and 2018, recorded a career season with 35 goals and 96 points in 82 games. He received 1,833:01 of ice time and only wound up taking four minor penalties, the fewest among the NHL’s top 50 scorers this season.

The Case For Sean Monahan: Like Barkov, Monahan also registered a career season with 34 goals and 82 points in 78 games. In 1,486:16 of ice time, he recorded only six minors, the fifth time he’s finished a season with 20 or fewer penalty minutes. A victory for Monahan would make him the third Flames player to take home the award since 2015 (Jiri Hudler, Johnny Gaudreau).

The Case For Ryan O’Reilly: Another career season here as the Blues forward scored 28 goals and recorded 77 points in 82 games. He also played a career high in minutes with 1,702:13 and was only called for six minors. It was the 10th time in 10 seasons for O’Reilly that picked up fewer than 20 penalty minutes.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
Selke Trophy

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Hurricanes try to even up; Golden Knights look to advance

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Game 4: Washington Capitals at Carolina Hurricanes, 7 p.m. ET (Capitals lead 2-1)
NBCSN

Call: Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire
Series preview 
Stream here

Game 5: St. Louis Blues at Winnipeg Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
USA Network
Call: Gord Miller, Ray Ferraro
Series preview
Stream here

Game 5: Vegas Golden Knights at San Jose Sharks, 10 p.m. ET (Golden Knights lead 3-1)
NBCSN
Call: Alex Faust, Mike Johnson
Series preview
Stream here

NHL Live, hosted by Liam McHugh, Keith Jones, and Anson Carter, begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Paul Burmeister, Jeremy Roenick, and Patrick Sharp will anchor USA Network’s studio coverage during St. Louis at Winnipeg.

PHT’s 2019 Stanley Cup playoff previews
Capitals vs Hurricanes
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Predators vs. Stars
Blues vs. Jets
Flames vs. Avalanche
Sharks vs. Golden Knights

Power Rankings: Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup
NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Round 1 schedule, TV info

Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports