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Matthews shoots for milestone moment in homecoming game

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

The Maple Leafs skated at Mullet Arena in Tempe, Arizona on Wednesday ahead of their matchup with the Arizona Coyotes

The Leafs hope Auston Matthews gets the chance to celebrate a milestone moment at home on Wednesday night. The superstar centre is just one goal away from 50 as Toronto makes its only trip to the desert this season. 

"It would be pretty cool to watch," said linemate and fellow Arizona native Matthew Knies. "Everyone is excited to see that. It's pretty cool that he could do it in his hometown as well. I'm super pumped for him. I'm going to try and feed him the puck as much as possible tonight."

"No doubt we want to see it," said captain John Tavares with a smile. "I'd say the odds are pretty good."

Matthews has scored in 10 of his last 13 games with three hat tricks during this scintillating stretch. The 26-year-old, who grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., expects around 20 friends and family members at the game.  

"It'd be great," said Matthews of the chance to hit an historic number at home. "It'd be cool so just going to continue to go out there and execute and play my game."

This is the latest Matthews has visited home in a season. He also played here in February back in 2019 when he arrived with 27 goals in 43 games.

"My immediate family is always super excited," said Matthews, who hosted a team-bonding event on Tuesday. "I've got some young cousins that are growing up and got into hockey the last couple years and they're excited too. It's cool to have them here and play in front of them." 

Matthews is averaging 0.92 goals per game this season and is on pace to score 74 goals. Teammates rave about his focus. 

"His mindset is tremendous," said Tavares. "He doesn't get caught up in streaks or the numbers and all that. He's just being determined to make an impact and finish his chances."

Matthews enters the contest with seven goals in his last three games. He's the first Leafs player with that many goals in a three-game span since Rick Vaive in 1986-87. He can join Vaive (three times) as the second player to record multiple 50-goal seasons with the Leafs. Matthews reached 60 goals a couple years back en route to winning the Hart Trophy. 

"They have Auston Matthews on fire right now so we'll need to be really aware of where he is on the ice and find him before they find him," Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny told reporters. "It's a challenge for everyone in the league, but it's something we can do."

Arizona can draw confidence from how they defended Connor McDavid on Monday during a loss to the Edmonton Oilers. McDavid picked up a power-play assist and a helper on an empty-net goal, but did not hit the scoresheet at even strength. 

"We've played better defensively lately," Tourigny stressed. "We just played [Nathan] MacKinnon [on Sunday] and McDavid and at 5-on-5 we did a really good job. We're looking to keep improving on our tracking. We do a really good job in the neutral zone. We need to do a better job inside of our blue line."

Matthews can become the first active player to reach the 50-goal mark in 55 games or fewer. McDavid did it in 61 games last season. 


ContentId(1.2079157): Matthews seeks milestone moment in homecoming game


Matthews has scored in three of his six previous homecoming games, but was held off the scoresheet during a loss last season. 

"These guys have kind of had our number over the last couple years," said Matthews, who was a season-worst minus-four during last year's trip to Arizona. "We want to keep this momentum going. We know they're going to be desperate tonight for a win and we got to make sure we're ready from puck drop."

Toronto has matched a season-high by winning four straight games. Arizona is winless in 10 outings (0-9-1) but the Coyotes have beaten the Leafs four straight times. 

"Some of it you can't quite figure," Keefe said. "On home ice, I think the Leafs have had a really, really difficult time against the Coyotes, and that goes back more than a decade."

The Coyotes are 10-0-2 in their last 12 trips to Toronto. 

How about the more recent history? 

"They've got good players," Keefe said. "They play with lots of skill. We played them in here last year, and they worked as hard and were as competitive, skilled, and structured as any team we played. They came out, and you're not ready for that. It catches you off guard. I know they are going through a tough stretch right now, but in a number of these games, they've been in or tied after the second or leading in the third. The game has just gotten away from them. If you aren’t ready to play, then like every other team in the NHL, they can make you look bad. Especially with this team — the style and types of players that they have — they are so skilled and make so many plays with the puck through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone. If you are not great defensively or don’t take care of the puck, they have it a lot and you are going to be chasing them around. It is about us getting our game established quickly."


ContentId(1.2079190): Leafs Ice Chips: Arizona angst


After missing Saturday's game with an undisclosed injury, Tavares returned to the Leafs lineup with a reduced role on Monday. The 33-year-old centre skated between Bobby McMann and Nick Robertson on the third line. 

"Our teams' obviously been playing really well so Keefer's wanted to keep things rolling," Tavares said. "Two guys that have obviously made great impacts for us all year and certainly have been playing really good hockey as of late. Bobby's been on a roll and finding the net, doing a lot of good things, so a great chance for me to go out there and impact the game and help make them better and find chemistry with them too." 

Tavares' usual running mate, William Nylander, remains on the second line with Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi.

"It is just one game, and quite honestly, I didn't like a lot of it in terms of how it looked, but I think we owe it a little bit of time," said Keefe. "I don't want it just to be a one-off. Domi has played well with Willy and with Bert — not necessarily as a trio, but in his time with those guys, he has done well. Whether it is John out or Auston out, Max has played well there. As I have talked about with a number of other things — whether it is McMann or Bertuzzi on the power play — we've got some positive momentum going as a group or with the individuals. You want to try to capitalize on that."

Tavares was also dropped to the second power-play unit on Monday so that Bertuzzi, who snapped a 19-game drought with a power-play goal on Saturday, could remain with the top unit. Tavares' last five goals have all come on the power play. 

"To be ready for when my name's called upon," he said of his mindset. "Obviously on the other unit and a lot of skill, a lot of talent [there] that's made an impact for us throughout the season, so just go out there and do my job and support the other guys when they go over the boards."

Tavares has not scored a goal in 5-on-5 play since Dec. 11.  

"To me, it is a good opportunity to look at some different things," said Keefe. "John has taken a bit of a step back in terms of his role on the power play or with different linemates, but at the same time, it is an opportunity to embrace some of our younger guys, bring them along, and support those guys with his leadership."


ContentId(1.2079190): Leafs Ice Chips: Arizona angst


Morgan Rielly addressed the media for the first time since his cross-check to the head of Ridly Greig led to a five-game suspension. 

"I don't think I need to get into it too much," the 29-year-old defenceman said. "It was just a reactionary thing."

Rielly confronted the Ottawa Senators rookie after Greig took a slap shot into Toronto's empty net on a breakaway to seal a win on Feb. 10. 

"I just wanted to address something and it obviously got away from me," Rielly said. "It was not intended to be executed the way it was and then the rest is history. It's been an opportunity to learn and grow a little bit. We're almost over with it, so I'm looking forward to getting back on the ice."

Rielly appealed the suspension, but commissioner Gary Bettman affirmed the five-game ban in a ruling published on Tuesday. 

"The league made their decision and you just got to live with it," said Rielly, who had never been suspended before. "I'm grateful it's almost over."

Rielly is eligible to return to the lineup on Thursday night against the Vegas Golden Knights. The Leafs then wrap up the road trip in Denver against a Colorado Avalanche team that leads the NHL in home wins. 

"That's the best way to do it," Rielly said of the tough schedule. "You come back and you're right back into the mix against some good teams. The team's been playing outstanding the last four games so for me it's important I come back and I'm able to slide in there and play well and help the team. So, that's what I'll be trying to do. But I think that's a nice way to do it. Just get back in there, start playing, and we'll put this all behind us."


ContentId(1.2079163): Rielly addresses Greig cross-check, suspension for first time


Depth forwards Ryan ReavesPontus Holmberg, Robertson and McMann have all sat out games as a healthy scratch this season. On Monday, Noah Gregor took his turn in the press box. 

"Whether it is Reavo, McMann, Holmberg, or Robertson, these guys have all played well and taken steps," said Keefe. "Each of them has responded well when their number wasn't called and they had to take a step back, miss games, or move around the lineup. [Gregor] hasn't taken the same kind of steps."

Gregor has gone 24 games without a goal.

"He has plateaued a little bit in his play — not just because it has been a long time since he has scored but also the other intangibles of his game that we need to be really good," Keefe said. "It was a chance to take a step back and gain a different perspective on the game, team, and role. It gives him a chance to come out refreshed and ready to go."

Gregor, who attended training camp on a pro tryout before earning a contract, will replace Reaves on the fourth line for Wednesday's game. 

"Go out with a renewed mindset," Keefe urged. "A chance to disrupt the rhythm a little bit can snap you back into place and then off you go."


Joseph Woll has been loaned to the Toronto Marlies for a conditioning stint. The goalie has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain since Dec. 7. 

"The hope is that he feels good at the end of this week to be able to rejoin our team and get back up to NHL speed, which he has been working his way toward in practice," Keefe said. "He will get a couple of Marlies practices in this week with hopes he builds towards playing in a game for them this weekend."

The Marlies have games on Friday and Saturday in Laval. 

"We will take it from there as to whether to give him more time there or bring him back," said Keefe. "It is really going to be based on how he feels. Quite honestly, we had a bit of a plan a week ago for him to go down there, spend some time, and build his way back to be prepared to join us on this road trip. He didn't feel comfortable or ready at that time. It is really just about how he feels. He will take it day-to-day from there and then make a decision. It is probably more on Joseph at this point than it is on us."

Ilya Samsonov will start on Wednesday in Arizona. Martin Jones is expected to play on Thursday in Vegas. 


Lines at Wednesday's skate: 

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

Brodie - Liljegren
Benoit - McCabe
Rifai - Lajoie
Lagesson - Rielly

Samsonov starts