In hometown, Leafs’ Auston Matthews reaches, surpasses 50 goals, continues unprecedented run

TEMPE, Ariz. — As Auston Matthews skated toward the Toronto Maple Leafs bench, his shoulders broke into something between a shimmy and a shrug before a stunned look on his face emerged. Matthews had just scored his second goal of the game and 51st in just 54 games. The unparalleled manner in which he’s been scoring lately — we’re talking 21 goals in his last 18 games — has begun to feel mundane, or at least automatic.

Yet as Matthews cracked that look on his face, you could argue he looked surprised for the first time through this remarkable run.

Wednesday’s 6-3 Leafs win over the Arizona Coyotes felt like the kind of game this team would lose earlier in the season. This Leafs team has, after all, struggled to win against bottom-feeding teams, and the Coyotes came into this game on a 10-game losing streak. That’s coupled with the fact that the Leafs remained without their No. 1 defenceman in Morgan Rielly, who has been suspended throughout the entirety of the team’s five-game winning streak, their longest of the season.

Instead, Matthews — raised in nearby Scottsdale — shouldn’t have been surprised. He delivered just as he has all season. That his two goals, cementing his second season with 50 goals, came in front of dozens of family and friends was just a reminder of how well he can rise to the occasion.

There’s been no shortage of things that have gone right for the Leafs through this winning streak. But all along, Matthews has continued to propel the Leafs and they’ve looked as dominant as they have all season in the process. And it feels more and more like the Leafs could keep themselves in most games — and most playoff series, for that matter — with Matthews playing and scoring the way he has.

That’s why it almost felt like a given that Matthews would hit 50 in his home state and take over the game. Because the Auston Matthews show rolled into town with full effect this week, and the star of the show lapped up every moment. In an arena far from Toronto, Matthews’ jersey was never far from view.

“I’ve got some young cousins that are growing up a little bit, they’ve gotten into hockey these last couple of years, and they’re excited too (to see Matthews play live),” Matthews said Wednesday morning with a smile. “It’s cool to be able to have them here and play in front of them.”

Though the Leafs were originally scheduled, at least last month, to practice Tuesday, coach Sheldon Keefe called an audible and gave the team a well-deserved day off. What he lost in practice time he more than made up for in goodwill with his team as the season grinds away. The day off allowed special assistant to the GM Shane Doan to host the Leafs coaching staff at his Arizona home.

“It’s beautiful here,” Keefe said Wednesday. “It was a great day yesterday.”

But more importantly to the players, the day off in Arizona also allowed Matthews the chance to host his teammates all day at his home for games of pickleball and multiple rounds on his golf simulator. This season it particular, Matthews continues to establish himself as a vital leader on this Leafs team. And the effect from his hosting duties were obvious: The newly tanned faces around the makeshift NHL visitors locker room Wednesday morning made for a team of Leafs who looked as relaxed and content with themselves and with each other as they have all season.

“Spend some time together, sit outside, enjoy the sun: good team-bonding stuff,” Jake McCabe said.

That translated on the ice as Matthews and the Leafs came out at their most aggressive. There was an unmistakable energy inside Mullett Arena, owing largely to the intimacy of the evening. The worst seat in the building still featured the same kind of view you’d brag the next day about having in 31 other NHL arenas. When the two referees barked to wave off icing, their voices rang louder than any other sound in the building. And when Keefe barked back at those same referees after Coyotes forward Matias Maccelli scored following a controversial John Tavares high-sticking penalty, well, you could hear him from every inch of the arena, too.

And you didn’t need binoculars to spot Matthews ripping home his 50th goal from his happy place, near the faceoff dot, past Coyotes goalie Karel Vejmelka.


Just a few feet away from Matthews, a quarter of the arena, clad in blue and white, leaped out of their cold, grey cement rows (no specific seating in the Inferno Student Section, of course) and into the air.

Whether they were snowbirds, travelling fans or friends and family members of the people in the Leafs organization who have serious ties to the state, most put up with the oddities on the periphery if it meant being up close for the main event.

That being Matthews and the Leafs, who — at least from the outside — appear as if they’re elevating their game with newfound confidence.

How else can you explain Matthews scoring goals that literally bounce off his shoulder, as his second goal of the game did?

“He’s obviously a special player; we’re lucky to have him,” Mitch Marner said.


Scoring those goals meant Matthews was being pulled in different directions all evening, including postgame with various media responsibilities. But before he fulfilled those responsibilities, he walked by a crowd waiting to see him and still stopped to give his mother, Ema, a kiss and a long hug.

She shook her head in amazement just as many throughout the arena would have.

What she saw was a team that deserves credit throughout its winning streak: There are fewer personal mistakes in its game. There’s attention to defensive detail that wasn’t always present. The Leafs are getting depth scoring. The physicality that came and went earlier this season has become a constant.

In the wake of Rielly’s suspension, the Leafs are looking more and more like the team Keefe has wanted them to be all season.

“If anything, I thought it was a real wakeup call for our team to get real serious about winning and taking care of games and rallying around the moment. The guys, to me, have very much done that,” Keefe said.

But still, Ema Matthews and the dozens of friends and family would have obviously been focused on the player leading the charge right now. Game by game, Matthews is making his case for the Hart Trophy even stronger. He’s now on pace for 77 goals this season. That number would be the fifth-highest in a single season in NHL history.

Whether or not he gets to that number, Matthews is still pushing the Leafs toward the upper echelon of the league, a place that they’ve struggled to stand squarely in all season. But if Wednesday night was any indication, they’re starting to look capable of getting there.

“(Matthews) is in his hometown. A lot of people here, a lot of family, a lot of loved ones. He’s meant a lot to this city,” Marner said. “So to get (Matthews’ 50th goal) here, it’s pretty special.”

(Photo of Auston Matthews: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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