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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.

The Buzzer: Tatar’s three-point night; Matthews makes more history

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Three Stars

1. Tomas Tatar, Montreal Canadiens. Two big wins in a row for the Canadiens. Two big nights for Tatar, who now has six points in his last two games. During a 7-3 win over the Detroit Red Wings, Tatar scored a goal and assisted on two others. Last season, Tatar had only two multi-point games the entire year.

2. Kasperi Kapanen, Toronto Maple Leafs. Kapanen continued his red-hot start with a pair of goals during the Maple Leafs’ 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. He now has four goals and eight points through seven games this season, really making most of this opportunity in William Nylander‘s absence.

3. Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. A 37-save effort from Anderson helped the Senators dispatch the Dallas Stars 4-1. It was Anderson’s second win in a row and over his last two games he’s stopped 73 of 75 shots faced.

Highlights of the Night

• During their game Monday night, the Senators remembered the late Ray Emery:

• Maxime Lajoie can’t stop scoring. The Senators defensman potted his fourth of the season and now has seven points on the season.

• In his 1,000th NHL game, Tomas Plekanec scored:

• One of Kapanen’s goals was this bank shot:

• Good luck trying to stop this Matt Dumba rocket:

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Maple Leafs 4, Kings 1

Senators 4, Stars 1
Canadiens 7, Red Wings 3
Predators 4, Wild 2

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

Panthers’ Matheson suspended two games for slamming Pettersson to ice

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The NHL announced on Monday evening that Florida Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson has been suspended two games for “interference and unsportsmanlike conduct” against Vancouver Canucks rookie forward Elias Pettersson over the weekend.

Petterson has been entered in to the NHL’s concussion protocol and is expected to be sidelined for the next 7-10 days as a result of the play.

The incident took place early in the third period of Saturday’s game in Florida and left the Canucks completely furious. Just after Pettersson had dangled around Matheson in the offensive zone, Matheson again encountered the talented rookie along the boards and after checking him, proceeded to slam him to the ice with the puck nowhere near the two players.

Here is the video as well as the NHL’s explanation for the suspension.

Panthers coach Bob Boughner tried to defend his play on Monday by saying that Matheson is an honest player and that he was just attempting to finish his check hard, while Matheson’s agent said that his client was “surprised” by how light Pettersson is and that it all happened very quickly.

On Monday, Canucks coach Travis Green was still upset about the play and how it resulted in his team losing a bright young star to injury on a play that was not necessary.

“Am I mad at the play? Extremely mad. I’m really upset, I still am,” Green said. “We lost a bright young player to an injury that I don’t think was necessary. I’m pissed off right now, still talking about it.”

Matheson forfeits $52,419.36 in salary and is eligible to return to the Panthers’ lineup Saturday against Detroit.

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.

Crosby, MacKinnon surprise Kenyan hockey team (Video)

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Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon have teamed up before to promote Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee and donut shop, but their latest venture saw them help spread the gospel of hockey.

Tim Hortons flew 12 members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team to Canada over the summer for a game. The African team, which was formed in 2012 and has set a goal for future Olympic participation, has only been able to play against themselves back home and this would be a new experience playing against an actual opponent.

As the players gathered inside their locker room, which featured brand new equipment and Kenya hockey jerseys, in came the Pittsburgh Penguins captain and Colorado Avalanche star to join their team.

“It is a dream to not only have the chance to play in Canada, but to play – for the first time – in full gear alongside two of the greatest players of the game,” said team captain Benard Azegere. “When we first started playing in Kenya, we didn’t even have full equipment, but now not only do we have that, we can say we’ve played a real game with some All-Star teammates.”

“That’s the best part about the game, just how it reaches so many people in a place like Kenya where you wouldn’t think there’s even ice,” Crosby said on Monday via the Tribune-Review. “To meet people from different places and to share the game that we love to play, I think I had as much fun as any of those guys today.”

The Kenyan Ice Hockey Federation is coming soon, and the men are not alone in their pursuit of a national team. As ESPN.com documented last week, a group of five women make up the Nairobi Ice Lions, who, like the men, see Olympic participation in their future.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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

Alex DeBrincat is Blackhawks’ next rising star

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Alex DeBrincat spent three seasons between 2014 and 2017 absolutely dominating the Ontario Hockey League. He was one of the most productive and prolific scorers in all of junior hockey during his time with the Erie Otters, and never finished a full season with less than 50 goals or 100 points.

That sort of production, combined with his obvious talent level, should have made him one of the first picks in the 2016 draft class.

It didn’t. Mainly because he was listed at 5-7 and under 170 pounds, making him one of the smallest players in the class and, today, one of the smallest players in the NHL. As he slid out of the first round in 2016 there was always the potential for somebody to get a steal of a player.

That somebody turned out to be the Chicago Blackhawks, who ended up snagging him with the 39th overall pick in the draft.

Today, that pick is looking like one of the steals of that draft.

DeBrincat has been one of the offensive stars for the Blackhawks in the early going this season and already has nine points (including six goals) in the team’s first five games. That comes after a rookie season that saw him finish as the Blackhawks’ leading goal scorer. So far, he is one of the most productive players to come out of his draft class as the only players to outscore him have been Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Mathew Tkachuk, and Clayton Keller, all of whom were among the first seven players taken in the draft.

Only Matthews, Laine, and Keller have been better on a points per game basis.

All of this is a huge development for the Blackhawks.

Given their current salary cap situation they are going to need young players on cheap contracts to fill in around their big-money stars at the top of the lineup. DeBrincat is well on his way to giving them such a player and should be part of the organization’s next wave of young talent. And that next wave seems to have some promising prospects. Along with DeBrincat the Blackhawks are also getting a ton of production out of rookie defenseman Henri Jokiharju, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, and they also have Adam Boqvist, the No. 7 overall pick from 2018, waiting in the wings.

The lesson that the rest of the teams in the league should take away from this is to never let a player’s size stand in the way of giving them a chance. Over the past decade teams have been far more willing to take “undersized” players than they used to be, but they are still a little too fearful of that lack of size because there was nothing in DeBrincat’s production or play as a junior player that should have resulted in him being anything other than a first-round pick … and probably a very high one. Obviously if all things are equal with players the bigger, more physical player is preferable. But in cases like DeBrincat (and Johnny Gaudreau, and Nikita Kucherov, and so on and so on before him) all things are not usually equal.

DeBrincat has always been a highly skilled player that produced at an obscene level. There was always the potential for him to be a top-line player. A lot of teams couldn’t get past the lack of size and allowed him to slip all the way down to the second round. The Blackhawks were the team to take the “chance” on him and are being rewarded with an emerging star that could be a potential difference-maker for them for a very, very long time.

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.