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All signs point to Matthews getting another shot at 70 in finale

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews - The Canadian Press

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs held optional skates at Amalie Arena on Wednesday. 

**Editor's note. Head coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed Auston Matthews will play Wednesday night after publication.


All signs point to Leafs centre Auston Matthews getting another shot at goal No. 70 on Wednesday night during Toronto’s regular-season finale in Tampa. 

After the game in Sunrise, Fla. on Tuesday night, Sheldon Keefe wasn't definitive when asked whether Matthews would play against the Lightning, but the Leafs coach did point out his team only has 12 healthy forwards at the moment. 

There are three extra defencemen on the trip – Mark Giordano, Conor Timmins and T.J. Brodie – who are expected to draw into the lineup on Wednesday. So, Toronto can sit out three guys. We now have a pretty good idea who they will be. 

Defencemen Morgan RiellyJoel Edmundson and Jake McCabe, who all played on Tuesday, skated again on Wednesday morning, which suggests they will be rested against the Lightning. Players almost always stay off the ice in the morning when dressing in consecutive games.

Keefe will meet the media in Tampa around 4:45 pm on Wednesday, which is when we will get official confirmation. 

In the past two seasons, Matthews has sat out a late-season game for rest, but this is a special situation. The 26-year-old centre from Arizona is aiming to become only the ninth player in NHL history to score 70 goals in a season. That exclusive club includes Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Mario Lemieux, Alexander Mogilny, Phil Esposito, Teemu Selanne, Jari Kurri and Bernie Nicholls. 

Chances like this only come around so often. We haven't seen someone score 70 in the NHL since Selanne and Mogilny did it in 1992-93. 

The Lightning certainly expect to see Matthews on Wednesday night. 

"For [Matthews] to be able to get 70 and to be able to say you were in the building, as a fan, would be super cool," said Tampa Bay bench boss Jon Cooper. "The problem is, I'm the coach of the other team, so we have to find a way to prevent that. But he's done it 69 times against a whole bunch of other teams trying to prevent it so it's hard to do, so we'll see what happens."

Matthews has scored in his last two games against the Lightning, but was held off the board in his only other trip to Tampa this season, which came in October. 

"He's at 69 now and we're going to try and make sure he stays there, but he's had a great year," said Lightning defenceman Darren Raddysh. "It's been cool to watch."

Matthews saw his career-long eight-game goal streak snapped on Tuesday despite firing five shots on net against the Panthers. He hasn't been held without a goal in consecutive games since March 16 and March 19. 

Matthews was not available to the media after Tuesday's game in Florida. 


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Nikita Kucherov is also aiming for a milestone. The Lightning winger is one assist away from 100 on the season. Only four other players – Gretzky, Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Connor McDavid – have racked up that many helpers in a season. 

"We want him to get it," said Raddysh. "It's kind of been on our minds the last couple of games. If I have a chance to get open or if we can make it happen, we're going to try and do that." 

McDavid recorded his 100th assist on Monday, but prior to that it hadn't happened since Gretzky did it in 1990-91. 

Can Cooper do anything to help Kucherov hit the century mark?  

"If we were going to coach differently, Sheldon and I would both pull our goalie in the first five minutes and make it 6-on-5," Cooper said with a smile. "Just get them over with because, in the end, would anyone really remember that? Probably not. But it does make for great TV."

Kucherov has 10 points (six assists) in three games against the Leafs this season. It's his highest point total against an opponent this season. 

"Every night he's doing something outstanding on the ice," said defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who's working his way back from an injury. "There's no nights off for him. He always goes off the ice with two, three points, it seems like it. And if he's not getting points, he's doing something different like defending and back checking. He's doing all the things. He's everywhere. He's unstoppable."

The pursuit of history by Matthews and Kucherov has added some spice to a game that doesn't have any meaning in the standings. 

"I've coached in a few of these and, I don't know, they're tough to predict," said Cooper. "I've been a part of some nail biters and some nobody touches each other out there so I'm not sure what's going to happen. There's probably two storylines everybody is looking for and some TV networks have picked this game up because of the anticipation of something happening."

Cooper peered over at analyst Darren Pang, who will call the game for TNT.  

"On a night where there's not a ton going on this is probably one there will be a lot of eyes on," the Lightning coach concluded. 

Kucherov leads the NHL in scoring with 142 points. Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon is four points back and also has one game remaining. 


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Matt Tomkins was the first goalie off the ice at the Lightning skate. He is projected to make his sixth career NHL start and first at home. 

"He's been awesome," said Raddysh. "I played with him in Rockford [in the AHL] and I saw what type of player he could be. He's an NHL goalie and he can stand in there. I'm happy he got the chance to prove himself and hopefully [there's] more to come."

Tomkins is 2-2-1 with an .891 save percentage with the Lightning this season. 

Andrei Vasilevskiy also skated on Wednesday morning, but stayed out late for extra work. 


Cooper doesn't plan to rest any of his regulars, because, well, he can't. 

"We have barely enough guys to dress 20," he said. "If it doesn't go the right way in the next few hours we're playing short. We're 'resting' out of necessity because we need to heal some wounds." 

Luke Glendening got hurt on Monday and didn't take part in practice on Tuesday. Fellow forward Tyler Motte hasn't practised since leaving last Thursday's game after taking a puck to the leg. 


Max Domi skated on Wednesday morning. It's the first time he's been spotted on the ice since Saturday's game. The Leafs forward is dealing with an undisclosed injury and isn't expected to play in Tampa. 

Calle Jarnkrok (hand) also skated on Wednesday. 


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