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Matthews' pursuit of 70 goals fuelling Leafs down the stretch


The Maple Leafs (optional) and Tampa Bay Lightning skated at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Wednesday. 


Eight games to go, eight goals to go for Leafs centre Auston Matthews in his chase for 70 goals. 

"It's amazing," said winger Nick Robertson. "We're definitely cheering. I definitely know the guys are looking for him out there. Hopefully he can do it."

"It's incredible," said defenceman Simon Benoit, who has one goal this season. "I'll be feeding him as many passes as I can. I don't need extra goals."

When Matthews hit 60 goals on Saturday in Buffalo, he framed it as a team accomplishment. And there's no doubt his teammates are rallying behind him. 

"There's some excitement there for Auston, just the type of year that he's had," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "But I don't think it's overdone or anything like that. I don't get the feeling of that. You can see guys looking for him on the ice but, in general, it's not a bad idea to look for him."

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos can relate to what Matthews is feeling. He hit 60 goals during the 2011-12 season. 

"It's just a supreme confidence when you have the puck, especially in certain areas," Stamkos recalled. "It really is a feeling that you wish you could bottle and have every night. When the puck's going in, you're coming into each game feeling like you're going to get one. I remember going two, three games without a goal. It felt like the end of the world."

The Leafs have been secure in the standings for a while now, so it's Matthews' push to become the first player to score 70 goals since the 1992-93 season that is adding some extra drama to the stretch drive. 

"I'm not concerned about 70 goals at all," Keefe stressed. "That's not the focus for me and I've talked to Auston and that's not the focus for him. He wants to finish the season strong. He wants to be feeling good. He wants to have energy through this last stretch and going into the playoffs. And that's really the goal for our team is to have our game in order and be as healthy and rested as possible as we finish this last push."

The Leafs have employed load management with Matthews down the stretch in recent seasons and that may happen again this year. 

"If he's chasing 70, yeah, that's tough," Stamkos said. "I remember, for me anyways, scoring 59 in the 81st game and then the last game of the year, if you're stuck on that one number, it's tough. But listen, at the end of the day, I think I know where their heads are at in terms of you want to win a Stanley Cup and if you have to rest certain players down the stretch than that's the main priority. For a guy like Auston, he probably has that same mindset."


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Rest may be helpful, but the Leafs also want to keep Matthews in a groove. 

"When you're in that type of groove, it's something you want to stay with," Stamkos agreed, "and continue to try and go out there and put yourselves in position to shoot and score. It's a great feeling." 

"We haven't been able to play with our group very much with the injuries we've had," Keefe added. "Five players being out and they're going to start to trickle back into our lineup and having our group in order is important. The more reps we can get with our power play in tact will be a priority too, so we'll manage that."

Top defenceman and power-play quarterback Morgan Rielly will return on Wednesday after missing four games with an upper-body injury. Mitch Marner, who usually plays beside Matthews on the top line, may return from a high ankle sprain on Saturday in Montreal. He's been out since March 7. 

Load management can also take place within games. Matthews is averaging 21 minutes of ice time this season. He's been below that total in the last three games. 

"Auston's minutes have been in a really good place and that's important to me," Keefe said. "I'm monitoring that. It's a balance of rest, but also staying sharp and keeping guys in game mode. That's really important too, because playoffs are hard and difficult, and emotions are high and all that and you don't want to slip too far the other way with having to climb your way back out of that."


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Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov will look to steal the spotlight from Matthews on Monday night. 

"Different players, but probably the same importance to their respective teams," said Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman. "World class players going at it so it will be a good matchup tonight and I'm confident Kuch will prevail." 

With 127 points, the Tampa Bay talisman is tied for the NHL scoring lead with Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon. Edmonton's Connor McDavid is one back. Those three players are dominating the conversation when it comes to the Hart Trophy. For Hedman, it's not up for debate. 

"Not in my mind," he said. "The way he's carried this team, and the adversity we faced and the kind of tough start that we had, he kept producing and trying to get us out of the slump."

Brayden Point is second on the team in scoring with 82 points.  

Kucherov averages 21 minutes and 40 seconds of ice time a game. 

"He plays big minutes," Hedman continued. "The smartest player in hockey."

Kucherov lit up the Leafs for seven points in two games earlier this season. 

"We got to be hard on him," said Robertson. "He definitely can create something out of nothing. We have to close space and be physical on guys like that." 

Kucherov will be playing in Toronto for the first time since the All-Star Game when he emerged as the villain of the event after appearing to quit during the skills competition. Fans booed him the rest of the weekend. 

"I thought they were saying, 'Kuuuuch,'" Hedman said with a smile. "That's how we are used to hearing it. I don't know how it's going to be today, but it is what it is ... I don't think he cares too much, to be honest."


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During a team meeting on Monday morning, the Leafs spoke about the potential to clinch a playoff spot. Their magic number is one. 

"I honestly didn't even know the situation," said Robertson. "We knew we'd be in a spot to clinch soon, but to be here tonight against Tampa and be a home game, it's definitely in our mind to get the win and get it over with and be clinched."

Four teams in the Eastern Conference – Boston, Florida, New York and Carolina – have already locked up their spots. 

"You start seeing in the standings the 'X' next to the teams and you get jealous," said Robertson. "I want an 'X' next to our team." 

The Leafs also have a chance to pull within two points of the Panthers in the race for second place in the Atlantic Division. Toronto enters the night with two games in hand. But the battle for home-ice advantage isn't a big talking point. 

"It's more you focus on your team and getting prepared and see where the chips fall," said Keefe. "I don't think we saw that as much of anything to look at or aspire to. A couple weeks ago it was not really within reach, but things have evened out a bit. I don't think it changes our mindset."

Florida has lost eight of 10 games (2-7-1), which has allowed Toronto to close the gap. 


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Defenceman Joel Edmundson joined the Leafs for the morning skate. He hasn't played since suffering an undisclosed injury on March 24. 

Edmundson may take part in Friday's practice.  

"I think there's potential for that," said Keefe. "We'll see how he did today. Today may have been his third or fourth time on the ice, but the first time with our group. He's progressing well, so just a matter of how he handles each day."

Edmundson will not be available to play on Saturday.  

With Rielly returning, Mark Giordano will be a healthy scratch. 

Joseph Woll was the first goalie off the ice at the Leafs skate and projects to start. He's 3-0-0 against the Lightning in his career with two relief wins this season. 


Lightning lines at Wednesday's morning skate: 

Duclair - Point - Kucherov
Stamkos - Cirelli - Hagel 
Eyssimont - Paul - Chaffee
Jeannot - Glendening - Motte
Sheary - Watson 

Hedman - Raddysh
Fleury - Cernak 
Lilleberg - Dumba 
de Haan - Perbix

Vasilevskiy starts