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Matthews hungry as ever' as chase for 70 goals fuels Hart Trophy talk

Auston Matthews Maple Leafs Auston Matthews - Jason Halstead/Getty Images

The Maple Leafs (optional) and Canadiens skated at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Saturday. 


Leafs centre Auston Matthews is seven goals away from 70 with seven games left in the regular season. 

"It's hard to believe," said captain John Tavares. "We're all probably still a little dumbfounded in a way, but also not surprised, because you're around him every day ... You don't set any boundaries or barriers for him. He continuously goes out there and gets better and makes an impact every night."

Matthews is aiming to become the NHL's first 70-goal scorer since Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny each scored 76 during the 1992-93 season. 

"You look at him in practice and you look at him in the summer skates, it's not hard to figure out that this guy is the most talented player on the planet," said linemate Max Domi. "Such a big body. Such a great shot. Unbelievable human being. Very, very humble. Works hard. I couldn't say enough good things about him. He's an awesome dude. He's been driving this ship all year for us."

Matthews has scored 26 goals in 33 career regular season games against Montreal. He started the season with a hat trick against the Canadiens on Oct. 11. 

"It seems like nobody can stop him," said Canadiens winger Cole Caufield. "It's a big challenge for us. We'll give it our best shot."

Montreal did hold Matthews off the scoresheet in their most recent meeting on March 9. 

The Leafs officially locked up a playoff spot on Friday, but Matthews' pursuit of a magical milestone seems to be galvanizing the group down the stretch. 

"Hopefully he can get 70," said winger William Nylander. "What do we got, seven games left or something? And he's at 63 so, I mean, it's not impossible. He's done it before." 

And Matthews is hot having potted eight goals in the last eight games. The numbers make it seem possible. 

"If there's anybody to do it, it's him," said Caufield, who's second on the Canadiens with 22 goals. 

Still, it's hard to wrap your head around. 

"I don't know," said Canadiens defenceman Jordan Harris. "To hear '70 goals,' like, that's pretty absurd. Those are numbers you heard more when Wayne Gretzky was playing and Mario Lemieux and those guys. It's good for the league that there's that much scoring now and there's a lot of excitement for the fans and everything. Kudos to him. He's a really special player. You hear the term, 'Generational players,' and he is [one] it's just there's other generational players in this generation as well. It's really special and scoring is probably the hardest thing to do consistently in this league, so that makes him much more impressive."

"Seventy is a big number and it's hard to fathom," said Tavares. "But we're in a real special place in the game right now. The types of players there at the top of the league and what they're doing, and some of the numbers and what they're reaching is unbelievable, and he's certainly a big part of that." 


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Tavares believes Matthews should be nominated for both the Hart Trophy and the Selke Trophy. 

"He should be right there," Tavares said. "To me, he's right in the mix and should be nominated for both. The type of season he's having, what he can potentially do here from a goal-scoring standpoint, and to be able to do that and just be as well-rounded as he is, it's just even more impressive."

"We're often in awe with his ability to score and produce at such a high level," said coach Sheldon Keefe, "but he does so many other great things off the puck to defend quickly and get us back on offence that drive our team, so certainly that deserves recognition." 

Matthews (99 points) trails other MVP candidates Nikita Kucherov (136), Nathan MacKinnon (131) and Connor McDavid (128) in the scoring race. 

Matthews leads the Rocket Richard Trophy race with a 10-goal edge on Sam Reinhart

"He's not just a trigger guy or just put in offensive situations," Tavares stressed. "He plays in all areas of the game. He carries play, wins so many puck battles, obviously, his takeaways are exceptional."

Matthews is fourth overall in takeaways this season behind only Mathew Barzal, Leon Draisaitl and Evgeni Malkin

"I don't think he always gets enough credit for how smart he is and the positions he puts himself in, especially how hard teams defend him and how he consistently finds openings, open space," Tavares said. 

"It's not necessarily anything new," Matthews said earlier this week. "I know teams want to play me hard and try not to give me space and I just try to play through pressure, use my teammates."

Matthews is third among NHL forwards in blocked shots and often gets the toughest matchups. 

"He's as well-rounded a player as you're going to find in our game today," Tavares concluded. "So, it'd be great to see him get the recognition on both those fronts."

Keefe doesn't feel quite as strongly. 

"As far as the league-wide stuff, I mean, I don't care, frankly," the coach said with a shrug. "Like, I just don't. You can debate it. There's so many great players around the league that deserve the same recognition, or more if you want to debate it. I don't know. I don't quite care. I just know we have a great player that drives our team." 


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There was a moment in a game against the Florida Panthers on Monday when Domi had a breakaway and looked over his shoulder to see where Matthews was. Is it possible to look for Matthews too much right now? 

"Nope," he said with a big smile. 

Domi is fifth in 5-on-5 assists this season. He's a pass-first guy and that's certainly not going to change with Matthews as his centre. 

"No," Domi confirmed. "He's trying to get 70 goals. But, of course, there's the right time to shoot the puck and we're all aware of that, but what he's done this year is spectacular and he's not done yet. He's as hungry as ever and just trying to help him out."

Matthews feels the love. 

"It means a lot," he said after Wednesday's game against the Lightning. "These guys, you go to battle with them every day and every night. We're doing this as a group and doing this together so, that's really the mindset."


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Keefe likes the chemistry on the top line with Domi beside Matthews and Tyler Bertuzzi so that trio will remain together even with Mitch Marner returning from injury on Saturday. Marner will join Tavares and Bobby McMann on the second line. Nylander, who is second on the team with 95 points, is moving to the third line with Pontus Holmberg and Matthew Knies

"Just looking for William to keep being William," Keefe said. "Whatever line he's played on, he's been a driver on it. He's having a terrific season. He makes our group better when he's at his best no matter where he's playing."

In the past, the Leafs have loaded up come playoff time and leaned heavily on their top-end talent. This time around, they're looking at different options. 

"We can talk about it, 'First line, second line, third line,' but the way I'd like it to be is each game it could be different," Keefe said. "William's line could be the first line tonight. When you got the talent spread out like that it's more of a question of who's going on that particular night and on great nights all of them would be going."

It makes Toronto even more of a match-up nightmare for the opposition. The dynamic changes. 

"It's a nice thing to have for them to be able to spread it," acknowledged Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis. "It makes it harder to match and focus on one line and so it becomes more of a collective challenge."

When the Leafs put Matthews and Marner together, teams can zero in on stopping that unit. It gets more complicated in a spread-offence alignment. 

"It's similar when you play Edmonton," said St. Louis. "It's a little bit easier, not 'easier,' but when you got Draisaitl, McDavid together, right, like you can kind of have the responsibility for one line."

But not every team has the luxury of spreading so much talent across three lines. 

"It shows just how much depth they have," said Harris, who highlighted the recent strong play of McMann. "The fact they have the talent to do that is really cool. You may as well use it if you have those sort of players."


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After being a healthy scratch the last time the Leafs visited Montreal, Simon Benoit will get a chance to play in his hometown on Saturday.

"It's always pretty special to play here," the 25-year-old defenceman said. "I grew up here so it's always exciting."

How many friends and family will he have at the Bell Centre? 

"A couple," he said with a smile. "I'm sure some people are coming and haven't told me. I have a couple so it's exciting." 

After the Leafs acquired Joel Edmundson at the deadline, Benoit found himself on the outside of the top six. He sat three straight games before an injury to Edmundson and a decline in play from T.J. Brodie opened the door for his return. 

"I just tried to be consistent as I can," said Benoit, who has dressed in eight of the last nine games. "Just do what I can to prove that I should stay in the lineup and from there it's up to the coaching staff to decide."

Benoit, who has never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, is determined to show he deserves to be in the Game 1 lineup.  

"I want to show that I should be in that first game," he said. "I want them to want me in that first game. I just keep playing the way I am and be hard to play against. Nothing else I can do, right?"

Keefe likes how the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Benoit uses his size and skating ability. 

"He eliminates a lot of mistakes and a lot of time spent in our end because of how he closes," Keefe said. 

Benoit doesn't provide much offence with just one goal and four assists in 57 games, but he is doing a better job of transporting the puck up the ice of late. 

"He's really worked hard on trying to improve his game offensively with the puck," Keefe noted. 

Plagued by back spasms at the start of training camp, Benoit cleared waivers and started the year in the minors. 

"He's just a tremendous person," said Keefe. "He's got a great personality. He works extremely hard. He's very coachable. He wants to get better. He's been a tremendous add to our group."  


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Projected Leafs lineup for Saturday's game: 

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

Rielly - Lyubushkin 
Benoit - McCabe 
Giordano - Brodie 

Samsonov starts