Maple Leafs believe Matthews' 70-goal pace is 'extremely sustainable'
The Maple Leafs practised in Vancouver on Friday.
Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews is on pace to be the first player to score 70 goals in a season since Teemu Selanne of the Winnipeg Jets and Alexander Mogilny of the Buffalo Sabres both potted 76 in the 1992-93 campaign.
"The way that he plays, it's extremely sustainable," said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. "Obviously to get to that number a lot has to go your way, but he's just focused on the process and playing his game and putting in the time. He works extremely hard and he gets rewarded."
Matthews scored three times on Thursday in Calgary – his fourth hat trick of the season – and is up to 37 goals in 42 games played. He missed one game due to illness.
Matthews is currently on pace for 71 goals.
"It's hard to believe, really," said Leafs captain John Tavares. "His ability to find different ways to score and be that consistent and to continue to elevate and do what he's doing is pretty remarkable. I wouldn't put anything past him."
Only eight players – Wayne Gretzky (four times), Brett Hull (three times), Mario Lemieux (twice), Selanne, Mogilny, Phil Esposito, Jarri Kurri and Bernie Nicholls – have ever scored 70 goals in a season.
"I don't think you could ever put any sort of limitations on someone like Auston," said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. "He scored in some different ways [on Thursday] — a one-timer, a backhander and a wrist shot. That is kind of what he does and what he is capable of. It is why he is so hard to stop."
Matthews scored a career-high 60 goals en route to winning the Hart Trophy in the 2021-22 season. The Arizona native just keeps getting better.
"He's got the gift, but I know he works his ass off in the summer," said Vancouver Canucks head coach Rick Tocchet. "It's hard to score in this league. It's hard to be consistent and he's such a consistent player. And he scores under pressure."
Tocchet pointed to Matthews' first goal on Thursday. The Leafs came out flat and fell behind 2-0 against the Flames. Toronto had gone winless in four games (0-3-1) and Keefe felt they looked tense. Then with just over a minute left in the opening frame, Matthews grabbed a loose puck, made a nice move between his legs and snapped it past Dan Vladar.
"Kind of a broken play," Keefe noted. "It lands on Auston's stick, thankfully, and he makes no mistake."
AUSTON MATTHEWS!! pic.twitter.com/GoqGvdC2dD— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 19, 2024
The Leafs could relax going into the intermission.
"Matty's goal got us to 2-1 so we weren't feeling too bad," said winger William Nylander. "He played an unbelievable game and got us the win."
After scoring twice more in the second period, Matthews heard "MVP! MVP!" chants from the large group of Leafs fans in attendance.
"It's always a lot of fun being in these atmospheres and seeing a lot of blue in a sea of red," he told TSN. "It's a big win for us trying to get back on track and we got to keep this momentum going."
A belt to go with some new hats pic.twitter.com/CpYmJoYuyX— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) January 19, 2024
How can the Canucks stop Matthews' momentum?
"He scores every game, right," said Canucks centre J.T. Miller. "We know the challenge that's ahead of us."
"You got to protect the guts of the ice with that guy," Tocchet said. "The [first] goal against Calgary, somehow he got to the puck to the middle ... If you want him to shoot, hopefully it's from the outside. That's your game plan at least."
"I want all those matchups," said Pettersson. "I want to play against the best. I want to challenge myself. That's just the way I am. I want to battle against the best."
The Canucks fell 5-2 in Toronto on Nov. 11, but they did keep Matthews off the board in that game.
Since the calendar flipped to 2024, no one has scored more than Pettersson who has 11 goals in nine games. He called his one-timer goal on Thursday probably his best shot of the season.
"I don't think I could have hit it better," Pettersson said of his only shot against the Arizona Coyotes.
🚀 INCOMING ROCKET FROM EP40 🚀 pic.twitter.com/rfTLt27l5T— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) January 19, 2024
Miller, who leads the Canucks with 61 points, thinks his line has cooled off a bit of late.
"We haven't created as much in the last three games," he said Miller. "We have another level. The games have been tighter-checking, a little more stale offensively, and probably lower event for us but those are the games where we got to be mature and disciplined and not make it a track meet. We're still a hashmarks down line. I really believe that. We have enough skill to hurt teams if we get possession down there."
Miller has three points, but only three shots on net in the recent games against Buffalo, Columbus and Arizona.
Vancouver enters Saturday's showdown atop the NHL standings. This visit from the Leafs is an opportunity to flex their muscles in front of frenzied fans, including many in blue.
"It's one of the biggest games we look forward to in the regular season," Miller said. "There's a million reasons to be excited to play. The last couple years they've been in here the games have been electric. It's going to be a great test for our group."
After blowing leads in four straight games, the Leafs were able to hold on against the Flames.
"I loved that in the third period, we just played hockey," Keefe said. "Guys didn't panic. Guys weren't tight. They were loose. I think we out-chanced them pretty dramatically despite having the lead and could've grown our lead significantly."
"They played a smart period," credited Flames defenceman Rasmus Andersson. "They were in our zone quite a bit in the third."
Calgary appeared to tie the game, but a successful coach's challenge overturned a goal by Connor Zary. Video coordinator and statistical analyst Jordan Bean and video and coaching coordinator Sam Kim noticed a hand pass by Blake Coleman and radioed to the bench.
"Jordan knew it touched their hand, but there was some uncertainty about whether their player touched it before [Tavares] did," Keefe said. "We needed some more time to get some clarity on that."
The Leafs called timeout to buy time before eventually making the challenge.
"I had no clue," said Nylander. "I was just praying. I didn't even know it was a hand pass."
Keefe is now four for four on challenges this season and 17 for 18 in his career. He offered a high five to Bean as he walked off the bench after the final buzzer and then called both Bean and Kim into the dressing room to salute them as part of his postgame speech.
"They've been on fire back there," said Nylander.
Tavares saw his point drought extend to six games, which is his longest dry spell since the 2011-12 season.
"I believe confidence is a choice," he said. "I think I've established myself well in the league. Knowing the success that I've had in the past, obviously a lot of belief in myself."
Does the levelheaded 33-year-old centre ever have his confidence shaken?
"Well, I'm human too," Tavares said with a smile. "There's emotions you feel throughout the game, but I think those are things I've learnt [to deal with] throughout my career, and just refocusing and sticking with your habits."
Tavares has finished minus-two in four straight games. It's the first time that's ever happened in his NHL career.
"You gotta go out and prove it every single day," Tavares continued. "You can't take any opportunity for granted. So just go out and keep playing and help the team in every area and those chances will come and it will go in."
With just one goal in 24 games since Nov. 28, Tyler Bertuzzi is also struggling to find his scoring touch.
"Just keep working hard," the winger said. "Just keep getting to the net and eventually it'll come."
Is Bertuzzi, who is stuck on six goals, gripping his stick too tight at the moment?
"Probably a little bit, yeah," he admitted. "Just gotta try and go to the net and get a greasy one and work from there."
Bertuzzi scored a career-high 30 goals with Detroit during the 2021-22 season. He signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Leafs in the summer.
"We do want to see him get a few over the line but he's done a good job of creating opportunities for his linemates," Keefe noted before Thursday's game. "We'll take that too."
Bertuzzi has 13 assists on the season, but just one in the last six games.
"I love playing with them," Bertuzzi said. "John's a workhorse. Willy does his thing and we feed off of him. Our chemistry has slowly gotten a lot better."
One of Tavares or Nylander has assisted on Bertuzzi's last four goals.
"He has done a good job there most of the season," said Keefe. "Those guys have been a really good line for us when they are at their best. I thought when I put Bert in that spot [Thursday], he did a really good job for us. It is a good fit. Willy really likes playing with him."
Keefe once labelled T.J. Brodie as Toronto's "Mr. Consistent" but when asked about the 33-year-old defenceman's play this season, the coach noted it hasn't been as steady as usual.
"Sometimes you go through those phases," Brodie conceded on Thursday night. "Maybe a lack of confidence, you're not getting the bounces, and you grip the stick a little tight. Sometimes it's just taking a breath."
What's the key to resetting?
"You just mentally think about [how] there's more to life than just hockey," Brodie said. "It's not the end of the world if you make a mistake. It feels like it at the time, but you just move on and try and learn from it and forget about it."
Brodie owns the best plus-minus (+10) among Toronto's defence despite facing tough matchups alongside Rielly.
Rielly is doing his part to keep Brodie upbeat.
"As his partner I want to be there for him and we talk all the time," Rielly said. "We all go through that at certain points over the course of the season. It's a grind and you go through a period of time where your body's hurting a little bit and you have to push through. You go through periods of time where mentally you're in a battle and you try and push through."
Rielly has been Toronto's leader on defence this season with 35 points. He's maintained a high level all year.
"All players throughout a season — or a game, even — are going to have dips, but he has bounced back so quickly so you haven't really noticed it," said Keefe. "He hasn't let it snowball. He has taken on a ton of minutes for us. He has remained healthy and has been consistent in his effort. He has just been even-keeled."
He's also been really disciplined. Rielly wasn't whistled for a penalty until Sunday when he was called for hooking Detroit's Joe Veleno. It was actually Nylander who committed the infraction, but Rielly didn't mind.
"I was happy to go to the box," the 29-year-old said with a smile. "I didn't want that goose egg on there any longer."
Is he interested in winning a Lady Byng Trophy, which is given to the game's most sportsmanlike player?
"No comment," he said, again with a grin.
Rielly took his first real penalty on Thursday when he tripped Andrew Mangiapane.
The Vancouver native was in fine form on Friday. Has he heard good things about the Canucks from family and friends?
"No," the longest-serving Leaf said with a big smile. "I've cut those people out of my life."
The Leafs have had 123 power-play opportunities this season, which ranks 28th in the NHL.
"It feels like we get one a game," Nylander said.
Why can't the collection of highly-skilled talent draw more calls?
"I would love to know," Tavares said.
Are the Leafs getting frustrated?
"Coming into this year we tried to put a lot of emphasis on not focusing on a lot of those things and putting our energy into the right areas," Tavares said. "Getting into the second half of the year, playoff races heating up now, obviously the refs don't want to be the ones deciding games and I think there's a lot of respect for that and how they set the standard. So, just go out there and play and compete and earn your calls."
Marner was not available to reporters on Thursday or Friday. He's taking a break from interviews, according to the team's media relations staff.
During his last media availability following Tuesday's loss, Marner stressed the need to tune out the outside noise.
"We're a great hockey team," Marner said in Edmonton. "We got to ignore what everyone else says."
Nylander on the Marner goal celebration last night: "He came a little bit hot. I was not ready for that."— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) January 20, 2024
Matthews: "I don’t know what he was doing there"
Tavares: "That’s what Mitchy brings is that emotion, that passion, you know, the energy he has." https://t.co/hIL44AdBit
Lines at Friday's practice:
Holmberg - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Knies - Domi - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Gregor
Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren
Lagesson - Timmins