Heroic effort vs. Jets officially puts Leafs’ Matthews in Hart Trophy talks

Blake Wheeler scored the winning goal in the shootout and the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — On a night when Auston Matthews entered the NHL’s record book, he may also have entered the league’s Hart Trophy conversation.

The superstar centre willed his Toronto Maple Leafs to a point in a game where they struggled to gain much traction once the Winnipeg Jets started playing with the lead. That’s become commonplace for Matthews in his fourth NHL season — a campaign where he’s now got a remarkable 31 goals through 45 games, including three in the final minute of games with Frederik Andersen pulled for an extra attacker.

Those three extra points earned in the standings could go a long way for the Leafs come April.

When Matthews has the puck, it can go in from anywhere. He tied this one with 14 seconds left in regulation on a one-timer from just inside the blue-line that rocketed over Connor Hellebuyck’s shoulder.

“Matty comes through again,” Leafs captain John Tavares said after the 4-3 shootout loss. “He’s been playing like an MVP. He keeps coming up huge for us. Obviously, [he] drives play and when he gets his opportunities, he knows how to put ‘em in.”

There isn’t much point in wading too deep into the MVP debate with three months left in the regular season, but Matthews is clearly among a group of serious challengers that includes Nathan MacKinnon, Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak and Jack Eichel, among others.

He now trails Pastrnak by one goal in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy and is on pace for a 56-goal, 98-point season — both of which would put him in rarified air in Leafs history.

What made his performance so special against Winnipeg is that he’s currently playing through a minor undisclosed injury, according to a source, which is why he left Tuesday afternoon’s practice after 10 minutes. So it was at something less than 100 per cent where he skated for a career-high 25:41 while generating eight of his team’s 28 shots on goal, and 13 attempts overall.

You are starting to see Matthews exert his will in all three zones, too, forcing a Jack Roslovic turnover at centre moments before his first goal Wednesday. He has taken his scoring rate from great to ridiculous in Year 4 — hitting the 30-goal mark with that snipe in the first period of his 45th game after doing it in Games 48, 57 and 61 the previous three seasons.

That’s played a huge role in Toronto’s turnaround.

He’s scored 17 times in the 22 games since Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock behind the bench and the Leafs have gone 15-5-2 in that stretch. That’s why, even though veteran teammate Jason Spezza believes there is still room for Matthews to grow more dominant in a hard matchup role, he says we’re still seeing something pretty special from him right now.

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“The team can win with him scoring 50 or 60 [goals], too,” Spezza said recently. “That’s what people forget sometimes. Everybody gets caught in the romance of like, ‘Steve Yzerman had to take a step back [offensively], right?’ OK, but there’s been lots of them who didn’t.

“Sidney Crosby has scored lots of goals and won Cups. Evgeni Malkin’s scored lots of points and goals and won Cups. You can still do it.

“[Matthews] doesn’t have to score like 60 points for us to win the Cup.”

At this rate, he’ll top 60 points before travelling to the all-star game in St. Louis later this month.

The biggest challenge for Keefe right now is trying not to overwork Matthews. The four busiest nights of his entire career have come inside the last three weeks, and he’s averaging a goal per game for the Leafs since Dec. 7.

“I just try and manage [his ice time], trying to not have others sitting for too long, but also trying to keep his rhythm and keep him going,” Keefe explained. “TV timeouts, when you see him get a breather and you sense that he’s ready to go, it’s hard not to put him back out.”

The Leafs are leaning heavily on their highest-paid player, which is why he’s starting to win a place in the conversation about who is most valuable to his team.

With nearly half a season still to play, Matthews has already become the first U.S.-born player — and first Maple Leaf — ever to hit 30 goals in each of his first four NHL campaigns.

The odds of him chasing 50 seem to increase with each passing game, too.

We are witnessing the continued evolution of a 22-year-old who has not yet reached his ceiling even though he’s now sitting alongside Alex Ovechkin with a league-best .55 goals-per-game average since the start of the 2016-17 season.

Against the Jets, he was the only reason the Leafs walked out of Scotiabank Arena with something to show for their night.

“He was just feeling it. Feeling it early and feeling it all throughout the game,” said Keefe. “The thing that really stood out to me was just how he manufactured his first goal. It came from effort — effort defensively to get back and that was a big focus for us in the hockey game and he led the way for us there and he got rewarded for it.

“So you love to see that.”

They’ve been seeing a lot of it from No. 34 lately.

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