Why Auston Matthews Debut is More Rare Than You Think

By Carrington Walsh

Imagine playing your first game in the National Hockey League. Now imagine debuting and scoring four goals in that one game. That’s exactly what Auston Matthews did. On October 12th, the Toronto Maple Leafs squared off against their long time rival, the Ottawa Senators, and Auston Matthews scored twice in the first and second periods. Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, AZ, was the NHL’s top draft pick in 2016, and clearly for good reason. October 12th’s game blew my mind not only because Matthews scored 4 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but also because the Maple Leafs still lost. How often does a player score four or more goals in one game and his team still lose? On that same note, how often does a team score four or more goals and still lose?

After asking these questions, we took to the data to investigate. We discovered that over the past 30 years, there have only been 162 games with a 4 (or more)-goal scorer [in two of those games, the winning team had two(!) 4-goal scorers] and 92% of those games ended in a win for the team that had the 4- or 5-goal scorer. Furthermore, October 12th’s game is 1 of only 2 games with a 4-goal scorer that ended in an overtime or shootout loss in the past 30 years. In an essence, Auston Matthews debut game was an absolute anomaly, as supported by our data (from Hockey Reference’s Play Index):

While only 8% of games with a 4-goal scorer ends in a loss, we wondered if that percentage differed for games without a 4-goal scorer. We found that the win percentage of games for a team that scores 4 or more goals is 82%. Essentially, it is 10% more rare for a team that has a 4-goal scorer to lose than it is for a team that collectively scores four or more goals.

After running a t-test, we found a p-value of 0.000976, showing that these two winning percentages truly are different, rather than being the same and appearing different due to randomness.

Although most had high expectations for the man who posted 15 points across 7 games in the World Juniors in 2015, I’m not sure everyone expected this great of a start. Hopefully, Matthews goes on to have many more nights like his debut and continue to astonish the sports world… without his team losing in such odd circumstances.

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  • At first blush, this looks like an interesting result–that a dominant player result is stronger than the equivalent team-wide effect. But I think that you are not comparing apples to apples here.

    I surmise that the distribution of team goals in player-has-at-least-four-goals games is different than the distribution of team goals in all “team has at least four goal” games. There will be relatively fewer only-four-goals-for-the-team games in the set of games where a player scored at least four goals.

    You should take a look at that.

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