TORONTO – It had been one of the great mysteries of a spectacular sophomore season. Auston Matthews, despite his many offensive gifts, was for the longest time producing more offence for the Toronto Maple Leafs at 5-on-5 than he was with the man advantage.
Finally, the regression has arrived.
Matthews doubled his yearly output in fewer than three minutes work on Monday night, beating Chad Johnson twice on the power play in a 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
"It’s nice, you score a couple power-play goals and it gives you some confidence moving forward," said Matthews. "I think the last maybe three, four or five games we’ve had some good opportunities and scored some goals just being simple and getting the puck to the net.
"So, like I said, it always give you some confidence."
While you never got the sense the Leafs most dangerous offensive weapon was lacking for confidence, the results come at a nice time. He hadn’t scored a power-play goal since Nov. 30 in Edmonton – a frigid night that feels like a lifetime ago with the playoffs opening next week.
The big centre has been an absolute force at 5-on-5 – posting a NHL-best 4.18 goals per 60 minutes he’s on the ice this season – while being a focal part of a PP2 searching for answers.
Midway through the year, he and William Nylander were swapped from their off-wings to their strong sides in the formation. That didn’t produce immediate results. More recently, they’ve focused on trying to funnel pucks down to Patrick Marleau around the net area and the veteran has scored twice with the man advantage in the seven games since Matthews returned from a separated shoulder.
Should it continue, opponents will not want to take many penalties against the Leafs in the post-season. The team’s top unit has consistently been among the most dominant in the NHL.
"Obviously, [Tyler] Bozak’s power play has been really good for us all year, very dynamic to say the least," said coach Mike Babcock. "The other group didn’t have much puck speed and were frustrated and in their own way. Now their puck speed is way up and they seem to have it going and have got confidence.
"Good for us, obviously."
Truth be told, it was likely only a matter of time.
Matthews scored eight power-play goals as a rookie last season and is already among the most effective shooters in the game – registering 73 goals through his first 142 NHL games on a 15.8 per cent shooting percentage.
Penalty killers have naturally started shading towards Matthews and Nylander, taking away the passing lanes between them in the middle of the ice. It’s forced the entire PP2 to go back to the drawing board with assistant coach Jim Hiller in order to find new ways to adjust to the coverage.
"I think at the beginning of the year, maybe through the first half or maybe two-thirds of the season, we were I think pretty predictable out there," said Nylander. "I mean teams kind of knew what we were going to do. Now we’re getting pucks to the net and being more unpredictable."
The Leafs have filled the net during a season that now stands as their best since 2003-04 – the only other time the organization has hit 103 points. They’ve got games Thursday in New Jersey and at home to Montreal on Saturday to try and better that mark.
It’s been particularly encouraging to see Matthews in top form since his latest return from injury on March 22. He’s registered points in all seven games, scoring five goals and five assists after being sidelined for four weeks with the shoulder separation.
The big centre had his way against the last-place Sabres, combining with linemates Nylander and Zach Hyman to produce goals on three straight second-period shifts. After Matthews scored on a power play at 5:01, he sent Nylander in for a breakaway goal at 7:39. Hyman then feathered another pass into a wide-open Nylander at 10:32 as Toronto grabbed a 4-1 lead.
Matthews added his second power-play marker in the third period – something he chuckled about afterwards because it came hours after The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel had been asking him about the lack of production at 5-on-4.
"Jonas was giving it to me this morning," said Matthews. "[Wondering] why we’ve been so bad this year and then we go and score twice. I mean rightfully so."
Pretty good answer.