TORONTO — Auston Matthews had No. 31 on his stick.
It was less than a minute into Saturday’s overtime and the 19-year-old was in alone opposite Montreal Canadiens all-world netminder Carey Price. Matthews had already beaten Price twice in regulation and another goal would have delivered the Maple Leafs a much-needed two points — not to mention a second career hat trick for the already dominant American centre.
Matthews got the shot off — despite Alex Galchenyuk’s best efforts in retreat, including an attempted whack — but Price got the knob of his stick on it, sending the shot and ultimately the game Montreal’s way as the Canadiens went on to win 3-2.
“He’s alright,” Price said sarcastically of Matthews afterward. “I think he’ll be a good player in this league.”
Matthews became just the third Leafs rookie ever to hit 30 goals with his two-goal performance in defeat against the Canadiens — the 14th straight loss for Toronto against Montreal. He’s rapidly approaching the franchise rookie record for goals in one season, just five from eclipsing Wendel Clark, who had 34 goals in the 1985-86 season.
Daniel Marois is the only other Leafs rookie to hit 30 goals, notching 31 for the club in the 1988-89 season.
“I knew he was an elite player,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said when asked if he expected Matthews to score 30 this season.
“I never spent any time thinking about what his stats would be, just that he would help us win. That’s what I like about him — he helps you win because he plays right and he’s getting better every day. He’s going to be our No. 1 centre here — if he’s not already — in no time and he’ll be a guy who’s driving our franchise.”
Matthews trails only Sidney Crosby (34) in the Rocket Richard trophy race, topping the Leafs both in goals and points (54) and also now equal to Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine for top spot among all rookies in both categories.
His 217 shots rank sixth in the NHL.
His first goal against Montreal was a solo effort. Matthews got a pass from Jake Gardiner in the neutral zone and burst into the offensive end with speed. To gain just a touch more space from the Canadiens defence, he slowed up as he approached the right face-off circle and then let it rip.
The shot hit the outstretched stick and then arm of Montreal defenceman Alexei Emelin, bounced off the ice and then snuck through the pads of Price.
It was his NHL-leading 11th game-opening goal of the year.
For No. 30 Matthews got his stick on a pass from Zach Hyman, doing so just before Emelin could tie him up in front.
Matthews finished with two goals and seven shots in almost 18 minutes, his line struggling at even-strength against Montreal (33 per cent puck possession).
Saturday was his fifth multi-goal game of the year, the Canadiens the 19th team already that he’s scored against.
“He’s a special talent, very aware of all his surroundings, quick shot, quick release,” Price said. “They got a good one with him.”
Beyond the franchise rookie mark for goals that Matthews is sure to shatter — likely in early March — other records are also likely to fall.
Matthews is on pace for 73 points, which would break Peter Ihnacak’s franchise rookie mark of 66 (1982-83). He has six game-winning goals already with a shot at equalling and perhaps passing Howie Meeker’s rookie record of eight, which has stood for 70 years.
Matthews has an outside shot of matching Darryl Sittler’s best of 45 goals for a Leafs centre, set back in 1977-78 season. The last Leaf to hit 40 goals was Mats Sundin in the 2001-02 season (41).
“He’s got a work ethic and a mental toughness that’s going to be a good example for everyone that becomes a Leaf,” Babcock said.