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Red-hot Matthews leads Leafs into showdown with defending champs

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews Mitch Marner Auston Matthews Mitch Marner - The Canadian Press

The Golden Knights skated at City National Arena in Summerlin, Nev. on Thursday. The Maple Leafs did a media availability in the afternoon at T-Mobile Arena. 


Auston Matthews feels inevitable right now. 

"Just give it to Matty and he'll score," said smiling defenceman Timothy Liljegren when asked about his approach on the power play. 

Matthews scored twice, including once on the power play, on Wednesday in front of friends and family in Arizona. He's up to 51 goals in just 54 games this season. 

"I kind of expected him to score his 50th with the way he's been scoring this season," said Liljegren. 

"Obviously crazy," said winger William Nylander. "I mean, it's just incredible."

Matthews has scored nine times in four games. He'll take his hottest streak of the season into Las Vegas on Thursday night. 

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the last player other than Matthews with 50 or more goals in a 54-game span at any point in a season was Mario Lemieux (54 goals in 1995-96).

"I don't think too many people have too many answers on what's going on," said Knights defenceman Shea Theodore. "He's got a great shot and it seems like a lot's going in for him. Hopefully we can slow him down tonight."

Easier said than done. 

"He's got 50 goals so tough to slow him down," said Knights defenceman Alex Pietrangelo. "The thing that's hard with him, and it's always been the same way, is he can score from anywhere. You get some guys who score a little more perimeter with the shooting, but he's willing to get inside. He's a big guy. You got to try and keep him away from the net as best you can. If he can get inside he can make plays."

"We have to force them to work to get to that ice," said Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy. "If they want to push through and get to the hard areas and make us pay the price, so be it."

The coach is also stressing discipline.

"You want to be physical and make them work, but you got to be checking with your legs and good sticks and your brains and that usually allows us to get over top of people," Cassidy said. 

The Leafs have scored eight power-play goals in the last four games. Toronto ranks second in power-play percentage (28.8) this season. 

"We've been good with staying out of the box," Cassidy said. "Edmonton came in here and that was a real focus of ours."

Vegas was shorthanded just once during a recent win over the Oilers.  

ContentId(1.2079689): How will the Knights attempt to cool off Matthews?


The challenge for the Knights will be even greater without captain Mark Stone, who sustained an upper-body injury on Tuesday and is listed as week-to-week. Vegas is already playing without top centre Jack Eichel

"The way we're looking at it, our six D that we went through the playoffs with are all healthy now," said Cassidy. "I think it's the third time they're going to play together this year so that's positive. We should get solid play from there. We got two healthy goaltenders, that hasn't always happened. That's how we're going to start right there."

Adin Hill, who leads the NHL with a .929 save percentage, gets the start on Thursday night. 

"We got to be better defensively," Cassidy continued. “We can make up some of the offence as we go along, but if we play good defence with this team, generally, it leads to good offence. That's what fuels our offensive game. That's how we plan to attack this without Mark."

Theodore returned from a 35-game absence on Tuesday. He'll anchor the second pair beside Brayden McNabb

"It's an adjustment coming back," Theodore acknowledged, "but all things considered, it's a step in the right direction and hopefully I have some more of my legs underneath me tonight."

The Knights have lost three straight games at home and will depart for a five-game road trip after the showdown with Toronto. 

"Definitely a little bit of a statement game," said Theodore. "They're a great team coming in. They've been pretty hot of late. It will be a tough matchup."

Last season, Stone missed the Knights' final 39 regular season games. Vegas went 23-9-7 (.679). 


Mitch Marner is always looking to set up Matthews and that was certainly the case early in Wednesday's game. 

"I'm trying to give him one the whole first three, four shifts we had together," the winger said. "I'll probably get yelled at for not shooting a couple of those."

Marner assisted on both Matthews goals against Arizona. He finished with three helpers on the night and now has multiple assists in five-straight games.  

"Auston has been doing tremendous things, but Mitch has been tremendous as well," coach Sheldon Keefe said. "I don't think it is by accident that Auston has had the type of push that he has had here. When you combine the way Auston is playing with Mitch, this is what you get."

A sure sign Marner is on his game? The between-the-legs pass he made in the lead up to Matthews' second goal. 

"He's just making plays all over the ice," said Nylander. "He's been playing unreal."

Marner has 13 assists in his last five games, the most by a Leafs player in a five-game span since Doug Gilmour had 14 from Feb. 13-20, 1993. 

Eight of Marner's 13 assists were on Matthews' goals.

"We're just great buddies," Marner said. "We're very honest with each other [about] where we want to go with it. It helps playing with the guy the last six years or whatever it's been. We try to do stuff in the summer together. We try to always maintain contact and throughout the season we try to figure out where each other likes to be."

ContentId(1.2079540): Marner magic a big part of Matthews surge; chemistry starts off the ice


The Leafs have won a season high five straight games. The streak coincided with the suspension to defenceman Morgan Rielly, who returns to the lineup on Thursday. 

"The group has really rallied here since Morgan left the lineup," Keefe said. "It is not so much Morgan leaving the lineup as that incident and how it all played out."

Rielly cross-checked Ridly Greig after the Ottawa Senators rookie took a slap shot into an empty net to seal a win. Rielly hit Greig in the head, which led to the suspension. 

"Morgan, in essence, defended the pride of the group and the pride of the logo," Keefe said. "The team means so much to Morgan Rielly. In that moment, he shows you how much he cares about our team and what we are doing."

Rielly's teammates vowed to tighten up in the absence of the team's ice-time leader and they have been true to their word.  

"We are managing the games far better and making far fewer mistakes," said Keefe. "If anything, I thought it was a real wake-up call to our team to get real serious about winning, take care of games, and rally around the moment. The guys, to me, have very much done that. It is a good chance for us to continue to build on it now as we welcome Morgan back."

The Leafs have allowed just 11 goals in these five games. 

"We're just establishing our game," said Nylander. "Getting better and better and getting a feel for what we need to do to win."

A similar story played out last season when Rielly missed 15 games with a knee injury and the Leafs went 12-2-1. 

"We're not beating ourselves," said Marner. "We're making sure we're making the good plays, the right plays. We've really done a good job of slowing down transitions and odd-man rushes against us and, as a five-man unit out there, when we break out the puck very well we're a dangerous team coming out of that neutral zone, and we make plays when we need to."

ContentId(1.2079539): Rielly suspension served as 'real wake-up call' for streaking Leafs


Rielly returns on Thursday night, but will start on a pairing with William Lagesson instead of usual partner T.J. Brodie

"The team's going really well and we've liked our pairs so we'll keep the same pairs," Keefe said. "You just keep that positive momentum that the team has going. Excited to get both Morgan and Lags back in here. Those guys will give us a jolt on a back to back."

Lagesson missed the last two games with an upper-body injury. 

With Rielly out, Brodie moved to his natural left side on a paring with Timothy Liljegren

"It just simplifies it," Brodie said of playing his strong side. "Neutral zone is a huge positive. You're on your forehand. You can make the cross-ice pass a little easier and it's easier to see the ice." 

The Leafs have outscored the opposition 9-0 with Brodie on the ice in 5-on-5 play during the last five games.  

Toronto will make one change up front with former Knight Ryan Reaves replacing Noah Gregor on the fourth line. 

ContentId(1.2079731): How will the Maple Leafs integrate Rielly back into the lineup?


Projected lines for Thursday's game: 

Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Domi - Nylander
McMann - Tavares - Robertson
Holmberg - Kampf - Reaves 

Brodie - Liljegren
Benoit - McCabe
Rielly - Lagesson 

Jones starts