If there’s something specific tickling the brain of Auston Matthews, and spurring him along through this late-season scoring binge, it’s not totally clear what that is.
The Toronto Maple Leafs superstar sniper was pressing hard for 50 goals last week, however that feat seemed hardly fulfilling. Breaking Rick Vaive’s single-season franchise record of 54 goals only a few nights later offered a moment worth enough to stop and savour, but that, too, appeared to be just another checkpoint on the path to where he’s trying to go.
This week we’ll see how he responds to hitting 50 (and 51) goals in 50 games, and becoming the first player to do so at any point in a season since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96.
Though I doubt that’s where it ends.
It’s possible he’s aiming to eliminate any doubt in the minds of major award voters in a competitive race toward the league’s Most Valuable Player. If 60 goals and a second consecutive Rocket Richard Trophy is persuasive, 65 goals – and matching or surpassing the modern-day mark set by Alexander Ovechkin – should be considered unassailable.
With 58 goals heading into Tuesday’s tilt with the Buffalo Sabers, the fact that 70 goals is still on the table with 10 games remaining – and after losing five through injury and suspension – is outrageous.
With the many carrots dangling in front of him, Matthews appears to be determined to take this as far as he possibly can. His teammates are clearly on board with that; it’s been both verbalized and demonstrated tacitly in their continued efforts to administer him the puck.
“He’s doing something special right now and to be a part of it is a lot of fun,” Morgan Rielly said Saturday night after a 3-2 win over Montreal.
“You just want to support him. He’s doing his best to help the team, so when he’s playing like this you just want to find him, support him, and keep it rolling.”
While what Matthews has done over the last few months is unprecedented in the modern NHL, there’s an easy comparison to draw when assessing the situation that he and the Maple Leafs find themselves in. At this time last season, the Edmonton Oilers were working hard to accentuate their best player when Connor McDavid was chasing the 100-point mark in a 56-game campaign.
It seemed priorities shifted for the Oilers at that time. Rather than eke out close decisions and otherwise unimportant victories with a postseason spot comfortably locked up in the one-time-only North Division, the Oilers seemed focused on opening things up for their captain. It unsurprisingly seemed to bring out the best of Edmonton, which won 10 of its last 14 games behind 36 points from McDavid.
The Leafs are achieving the same sort of success through their own legendary individual run. But despite an uptick in shots from Matthews, and perhaps some situational deferral from his teammates, head coach Sheldon Keefe doesn’t see a team making concessions for its star. Instead, all the things he has preached about winning hockey is what is putting Matthews in a position to soar to new heights, and by extension achieve team success.
“For good reason, we’re celebrating Auston, and we’re celebrating the run that Mitch (Marner) is on here, and what those guys are doing, but there are a ton of good things happening around our team, and all throughout our lineup. “
Keefe isn’t wrong.
In fact, Matthews’ run, and the oxygen he’s consuming in the marketplace, is distracting from what has been the greatest campaign in the 105-season history of the organization – and one not being driven exclusively by its stars. With 100 points through 72 games, the Maple Leafs are three wins – or six points – away from setting a new franchise record for points in a season and have the outstanding runway to set the sort of bar which will be incredibly difficult to match.
Just like Matthews.
The key difference is that what the star sniper is doing will be openly discussed, while anything related to team – or, more specifically, coach – will be shelved.
“We don’t talk about those things,” Keefe said Saturday, when asked if the same incentives exist for both himself and the team. “It’s all about preparing for the playoffs for us, but part of preparing for the playoffs is being at our best every game. There’s only one way that we play that allows us to succeed: a high level of competitiveness, a high level of structure , a high level of execution.
“Those things we want to bring no matter what. We think good things are going to happen to our individual players when we play like that. Good things are going to happen to our team.”
The Maple Leafs are almost assuredly going to finish second – behind the Florida Panthers and ahead of both the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning – in the Atlantic Division with in excess of 110 points, but there is plenty to play for at both the individual and team level over the final three weeks of the season.
For Matthews, there might be a specific number, or award, in mind.
For the coach, it remains completely open-ended.
“Let’s just keep building,” Keefe said.
“However it sorts out in the end— let’s do all that we can to put ourselves in the best position possible both in the standings and in the confidence of our team.”
Fortunately for Matthews and the Maple Leafs, success is inextricably linked.
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