NEW YORK — As Alex Ovechkin has rocketed to the top of the NHL’s goal list by scoring 14 times in his last seven games, his peers can only shrug their shoulders and laugh.
“I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody,” Matthews said before Wednesday’s game at Madison Square Garden. “He’s the greatest goal-scorer of this generation and could go down as one of the great goal-scorers of all-time. So I don’t think it’s to anybody’s surprise that he’s doing what he’s doing, but obviously it’s impressive.”
Not only is Ovechkin starting to spark discussion about whether he can chase down Wayne Gretzky for the NHL’s all-time goals title — he’s 196 behind — he’s also looking to claim the Rocket for a remarkable ninth time in his Hall of Fame career.
His recent scoring binge has left him sitting at 40 goals, two ahead of Boston’s David Pastrnak and three up on Matthews.
The 2019-20 goal title will almost certainly go to one of those three players.
As much as the Leafs focus is on finishing the season strong and earning a trip to the playoffs, they’re not afraid to admit that it would be nice to see Matthews claim some individual hardware. The last time a player from the organization finished a season with the most goals was 1945-46, when Gaye Stewart scored 37 in 50 games.
“I want to see all of our players do well in those different areas,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “Of course, team goals are important, but the team goals have to come from an individual’s goals — you win games by scoring more goals than the other team.
“Auston’s a guy that’s a difference-maker for us so the more that he’s feeling good and finishing and scoring, the more life and energy it brings to our team and the greater chance of success for us.”
He’s been one of the biggest beneficiaries since Keefe replaced Mike Babcock. Matthews has scored 23 goals in 29 games under Keefe while averaging 20:57 per game — more than two minutes above his previous high as an NHL player.
The new coach has also given him an extended run alongside Mitch Marner, the team’s most gifted playmaker.
Since entering the league in 2016-17, Matthews has scored more goals than everyone but Ovechkin. And the Washington Capitals superstar doesn’t appear ready to cede the crown despite the 12-year age gap between the players.
(Fun fact: Ovechkin and Matthews were both born on Sept. 17).
When Leafs captain John Tavares looks at Ovechkin, he struggles to explain how a 34-year-old could still be scoring at the same crazy rate for more than a decade: “I would love to know. … I think the biggest thing is he loves to play, loves to score, he’s got the passion for it and that brings out his skillsets, which are very dominant. And he just continues to prove year after year his ability to sustain that type of level, which is very impressive.”
“It’s crazy,” said defenceman Tyson Barrie. “I mean it’s just nuts, he just keeps scoring and I don’t think it’s going to slow down. He’s a generational player and he’s been doing this a long time and it’s crazy that he’s still doing it at this rate now.”
Matthews admires both the big- and small-picture samples. The fact that Ovechkin has three hat tricks in his last six games and leapfrogged three legends on the all-time goals list in a matter of weeks: Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier.
Consider this: Ovechkin is concurrently the No. 1 goal-scorer this season and the No. 8 goal-scorer in the entire history of the league.
“It’s extremely impressive and just a testament to the player that he is,” said Matthews. “Every year he’s hungry, he’s motivated, obviously plays with a lot of passion and he’s fun to watch.
“I think it’s just everything kind of put together.”