SAN JOSE, Calif. — It seemed a little odd when Jack Campbell, not yet a month into being a Maple Leaf, showed up the other day sporting the same distinct facial hair stylings as Auston Matthews.
Turns out it was no coincidence.
“The road to 50,” proclaimed Campbell.
Solidarity amid Matthews’ chase of one of the NHL’s most prestigious single-season milestones comes in the form of a cookie duster. A lip toupee. A muzzy.
“I just thought it would kind of be funny just to get it going a little bit,” said Campbell. “He’s such a great guy and he’s having a great year. I just thought I’d do the muzzy and see how it worked, and he scored the first game with it so I thought ‘I’ll just keep ‘er going.'”
Matthews appreciates the support from Campbell. They’ve become fast friends since a Feb. 5 trade brought the goaltender and veteran forward Kyle Clifford over from Los Angeles. He even likes that his look is being mimicked by a teammate.
“Yeah, I do,” said Matthews. “That’s nice.”
So far only one other Leaf is committed to sporting a caterpillar on the road to 50 — “[Kasperi] Kapanen’s on board,” said Campbell — but there are rumblings of others who are tempted to take up the cause.
“It might be picking up some steam, so we’ll see,” said veteran winger Jason Spezza.
Matthews is a good bet to become the first Leaf in more than 25 years to reach the 50-goal plateau. He’s sitting at 45 entering Tuesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center and still has 15 more to play after it.
The thought of scoring 50 goals, and potentially claiming the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer, means a lot to him. As it should. Just 12 players have hit that number in the league’s Salary Cap Era and only Alex Ovechkin has made it look like something that should be achieved on an annual basis.
It’s rarified air.
“I just try to kind of keep my mind off it and go out there and play hockey and let the rest of it take care of itself,” said Matthews.
Moustaches aside, the approaching milestone is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
The Leafs organization is more than a century old and only Dave Andreychuk, Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive (who holds the franchise record with 54 goals) have previously travelled up the mountain to 50.
Mitch Marner acknowledges “it’s hard not to know what’s going on there.” He’s assisted on 23 of Matthews’ goals this season and spoke Monday of not wanting to force passes to his centre while trying to get him across the line.
“When you get it to him it’s pretty delightful to watch,” said Marner. “It’s almost like you know it’s going to go in. He’s had a great year and hopefully he can get some more on this [road] trip.”
Matthews has been a model of consistency in 2019-20, averaging more than four shots per night for the first time in his NHL career while completely avoiding any stretch that might be labelled a slump.
The longest he’s gone without scoring was five games from Nov. 27 to Dec. 4 and he still put 21 shots on net during that brief dry spell.
“It’s incredible,” said Spezza. “Even the nights he’s not scoring he’s getting lots of chances. I’ve seen him just mature in his game even just through the course of this year.
“He’s a special player.”
Campbell has spent the last couple weeks taking shots from Matthews in practice and marvels at his ability to pick any spot in the net he pleases. Take, for example, the puck he wired through Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko from a bad angle on Saturday night.
“Nothing surprises me anymore with him,” said Campbell. “It’s just crazy how he like literally looks for that hole and finds it.”
Matthews is known for carving out a style all his own.
That includes the thick moustache he returned to Toronto with after last summer. He was initially coy about how long it might stay, but recently told Sportsnet’s Shawn McKenzie he plans to keep it for the rest of the season.
“See how it goes, but hopefully it brings a little good luck,” said Matthews.
Now it’s sparking imitators in the Leafs dressing room.
While Matthews chases down No. 50, teammates are trying to create all the good fortune they can for him.
“I thought ‘Let’s hop on the bandwagon and hopefully he gets it done,” said Campbell.