TORONTO – To fully appreciate Auston Matthews’ emphatic goal celebration, carefully gif’d up and circulated around the hockey world Monday night, you’d be best served to peruse the 20 others that preceded it this season.
Typically, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ super sophomore tries to swallow a smile and dutifully pounds the requisite fists extended from his team’s bench, expressing all the enthusiasm of a guy trudging through the receiving line for a second cousin’s wedding that’s spoiling his long weekend.
The act-like-you’ve-been-there crowd would be proud.
But Matthews’ celebration of his 21st goal, the one that gave the Leafs a legitimate 2-1 lead versus the mighty Colorado Avalanche — who would rebound to defeat the home team 4-2 — was a different animal altogether. This one had teeth and spat venom.
One shift after getting a controversial score wiped off the board due to Avs coach Jared Bednar’s successful goaltender interference challenge, Matthews bolted to the net again on a nifty William Nylander rush shot and hammered home a rebound past Jonathan Bernier.
As the horn blared, he spun ’round and forcefully pointed at the puck in the net, guiding referee Gord Dwyer’s eyes to the cold, black evidence.
“I just made sure the puck was in this time,” Matthews said. “Yeah, I was pretty excited about that one.”
For the so-called dog days, emotions have been wagging more than normal in Leafland. Frederik Andersen calling out his mates’ desire. Whispery Patrick Marleau channeling his internal Al Pacino for an Any Given Saturday–style pep talk.
Chronic losing will do that to proud athletes.
In losing to Bernier and the Avs — with 10 wins in a row, the unlikeliest unstoppable force east of Vegas — the Leafs have now dropped four consecutive home games. Since Nov. 28, the Leafs still have just one regulation win against a team currently in playoff position (Dec. 23 over the New York Rangers).
And the holes left by injuries to their best left-shot defenceman, Morgan Rielly, and right-shot defenceman, Nikita Zaitsev, gaped Monday.
Andreas Borgman fumbled an ugly puck that resulted in Nail Yakupov’s momentum-shifting goal, and he and Roman Polak buckled under the Avalanche’s speedy attack. A 5-on-3 Leafs’ power play went fruitless, and there were a couple rounds of Whose Man Is It Anyway?
“We’re all learning still. There’s different situations in the game where you have to make those split-second decisions,” Marleau said. “We’re all making decisions out there. Just trying to help each other out and have each other’s back.”
Don’t expect either Rielly or Zaitsev back until after the all-star break. Stuck in a midseason tryout for the stretch run, youngsters Travis Dermott, Borgman and Connor Carrick are all seeing more ice as a result.
“Today they didn’t all play good,” Mike Babcock said. “So at least we find out.”
Also on the coach’s list of Things to Find Out: what goaltender interference is.
Matthews first appeared to have put the Leafs up 2-1 in the second period when he knocked in a loose puck in Bernier’s crease, but the initial good-goal call was reversed upon review.
“I was pretty surprised,” Matthews said. “It would’ve been nice to get the benefit of the doubt because I don’t think I interfered with him too much. I can’t score if I’m not in that position.”
In real time, when his goal got wiped over the PA system, Matthews was captured subtly rolling his eyes. A “Ref! You! Suck!” chant swelled.
The officials explained to the star that, one, his feet were in the crease and, two, Bernier’s stick knob and blocker were tied up in his body.
“It was a tough decision for them,” said Matthews, navigating a land-mine issue, “and it’s gotta be one way or another.”
Asked point-blank if he knows what goalie interference is, Matthews sighed: “That’s a good question. I don’t know.”
Babcock, too, was asked if he knows what constitutes goalie interference: “No.”
How about Andersen, who plays goal? “I don’t know what they’re looking at. It looked very minor.”
Babcock refused to blame Toronto’s latest loss on that call, but he couldn’t help but go a step further.
“I’ve got texts from half the coaches telling me that should be a goal, so if the coaches don’t know, we don’t know,” said Babcock, shifting focus to the Leafs-favoured shot metrics.
“I just thought we played good enough and generated enough chances. [Colorado] didn’t generate that many chances and so, in the end, we should have won the game.”
Like so many interference calls, that’s debatable.
The young Avalanche play a quick, relentless game free of expectations. They took advantage of Toronto’s miscues and continue to roll on the type of sustained run that seems so distant in the Leafs’ past.
The good news is that over the Leafs’ past four periods, the top line of Hyman-Matthews-Nylander has sparkled. Any residual hesitation from the top centre’s two injuries this season feel long gone, as he stick-whacked and battled with Erik Johnson as the seconds drained away.
Angry looks good on them.
“That line dominated all night long,” Babcock said. “They could have had lots [of goals].”
Matthews was hungry for two but settled for one, and made a point of making it memorable.