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Matthews maintains focus as hype around 70-goal chase grows

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews - The Canadian Press

The New Jersey Devils skated at the Prudential Center in Newark on Tuesday. The Maple Leafs are scheduled to hold a media availability at 4:45 pm. 


Sidney Crosby called it "crazy" that someone could score 70 goals in a season in today's NHL. The Penguins captain also said Auston Matthews can absolutely do it. That was before the Leafs centre scored his 65th goal in Monday's 3-2 overtime win against Pittsburgh. 

"It's nice words, obviously, coming from Sid and just who he is, what he's accomplished," Matthews said. "I have the utmost respect for him, so hearing that is very humbling."

With the Leafs locked into a playoff spot, Matthews' chase of 70 goals is dominating headlines.

"For myself, like, nothing really changes," the 26-year-old centre from Arizona insisted. "It's just one game at a time and trying to go out there and compete and help the team win."

"He is himself," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He is poised. He is just going about his business. He loves to score goals, but he is not putting that ahead of the team."

Teammates, meanwhile, are enjoying having a front-row seat to history. 

"It's just incredible, man," said defenceman Jake McCabe. "We're in awe just as much as you guys are watching."

"It's still crazy," said winger Matthew Knies. "Sixty was crazy. Sixty-five, you kind of look at in awe. It's pretty incredible what he can do. Cross my fingers, I want to see 70."

The Leafs have five games remaining, including Tuesday's tilt in New Jersey. 

We haven't seen someone score 70 goals since a pair of wingers, Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny, potted 76 during the 1992-93 season. Back then, Travis Green was a rookie breaking into the league with the New York Islanders. Does he remember what it was like to see that? 

"I do," the New Jersey Devils interim head coach said. "Every player is different. The thing about Auston is he's a big centre that controls the game in many ways. Usually, guys that score that many goals are just pure goal scorers. I think it's well known that he brings a lot of other things to the game."

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On Saturday, Leafs centre John Tavares called on Matthews to be nominated for the Selke Trophy, which is given to the NHL forward "who demonstrates the most skill in the defensive component of the game." Devils centre Nico Hischier, who was the runner-up for the award last season, nods quickly when Tavares' comments are relayed. 

"One hundred per cent," Hischier said. "He's that kind of guy that doesn't give a lot up for the team too. His stick work, stripping pucks away, that's all on a high level. He should definitely be in there. It's always hard when you score 65 goals to be the best defensive forward, but he definitely deserves to be in there too."

Matthews finished 14th in Selke Trophy voting last season. He was 10th two years ago when he won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. 

Matthews leads the Leafs with a plus-34 rating this season. Mitch Marner is second at plus-21. 

"What I like most about his game is, he's scoring for us, but his defensive details are top-notch," said McCabe. "He seems to always be in the right spot. He's got a phenomenal stick. He's really helping us out down low and taking charge defensively as well. He's not cheating the game to get these goals."

The Leafs struggled to break through against a desperate Penguins team on Monday night. Matthews spent most of his shifts going up against Evgeni Malkin (6 minutes and 40 seconds at 5-on-5) or Crosby (3 minutes and 55 seconds at 5-on-5). 

"He doesn't get many shifts that are easy matchups in terms of the calibre of the lines he is playing against," Keefe noted. "He can't cheat the game. I didn't think his line — I would have to go back through it — gave up much, and they generated a bunch for us. Even in the first period when we couldn't really find ourselves, that line was really good."
Matthews described it as a "slushy" game. He finished with just two shots, but broke through with a power-play goal. He also assisted on the overtime winner by McCabe. 

"He is going about it the right way," Keefe said. "He trusts that his ability is going to shine through in the end and that he will be able to score."

Matthews has scored in five straight games and eight of 10 overall. What seemed "crazy" now seems realistic as 70 goals comes into focus.  

"However it works out in the end, I think he will be content with it and should be proud of how he has handled himself all the way through it," said Keefe.

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The Leafs lost to the Devils 6-3 in their last meeting on March 26. Toronto peppered New Jersey with 25 shots in the first period, but squandered a 3-2 lead in the second period and got blasted by Keefe afterwards. The coach felt his players got carried away on offence. Keefe labelled the performance "immature" and called out his leadership group for failing to set a proper example. 

"They have that a little bit in the back of their head," said Hischier. "But they're a playoff team, so they always bring, consistently, a good effort. We just got to be ready. We got to expect them to be coming and they will. We got to focus on us."

The Leafs have pulled within three point of the Florida Panthers in the race for home-ice advantage in the playoffs. Toronto hasn't been this close to second place in the Atlantic Division since they woke up on Jan. 4. 

"They're going to be a determined group," said Green. "They got a lot to play for right now."

New Jersey is five points adrift in the wild-card race and find themselves playing out the string in a disappointing season. 

"We're in the NHL here," Hischier stressed. "You got to find somehow motivation deep down inside of you, whatever it is, from each guy. You got to bring your best. It doesn't matter where you're at. Season finishes with 82 games and not 78."

Nothing is coming easy for the Devils this season. Even the morning skate on Tuesday was a struggle as the lights went off at the Prudential Center, which forced the players onto the practice rink pad to finish up the workout. 

The Devils will be without top-line centre Jack Hughes who is dealing with an upper-body injury. Green was tight-lipped when pressed about injury. 

Is it a long-term issue? 

"We'll see."

When did the injury happen? 

"I've already said what I'm going to say about Jack. He's not in tonight." 

Jake Allen was the first goalie off the ice and is expected to start for the Devils. Matthews has scored 12 goals in 17 games against Allen, including one in the game on March 26.

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Joseph Woll is expected to get the start for the Leafs. He has allowed a goal on the first shot faced in three of his past four starts. 

"I don't think it's a pattern I need to make anything of," he said after a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last week. 

What's the key to a good start for a goalie? 

"Ideally a save," the 25-year-old said with a laugh. "But I try my best to stop the puck, so it's not something I can really control in that way. I do the same thing for every game, and I have the same mindset. That's my game plan coming in."

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Knies has scored in three of the past four games and has produced seven points in the last seven games. 

"I just think I'm finding myself around the net, getting my stick available," the 21-year-old winger said. "The more I can free up myself around that area, I can just create loose pucks and capitalize."

Knies has scored in consecutive games for the first time in his career. Those goals have coincided with a new line assignment. Knies is now playing on a line with William Nylander and centre Pontus Holmberg

"It's been good," said Knies. "We produce a lot of offence and have created opportunities. We just have to play a little more structured and detailed and communicate a little bit better in our D-zone and I think it's going to work out for us well."


Lines at Devils skate on Tuesday: 

Bowers - Hischier - Bratt 
Meier - Haula - Holtz 
Palat - Nosek - Mercer 
MacDermid/Halonen - Tierney - Foote

Hughes - Marino 
Bahl - Smith 
Siegenthaler - Nemec 

Allen starts