TORONTO – Had the goal stood up, it would’ve been the Toronto Maple Leafs’ third straight even-strength strike from an Auston Matthews – Mitchell Marner line that doesn’t exist.
And it would have spun a 4-1 Arizona Coyotes victory into a 2-2 tie and, hopefully, some three-on-three fun.
Until Matthews accepted a spinning Marner backhand pass with just under four minutes remaining in a 2-1 game, the Leafs star centre had been having an off night. As he circled behind goalie Antti Raanta’s net, crease-front winger Zach Hyman sticked Raanta, who was pushed into his cage.
A full two seconds later, Matthews had drifted to the left circle, stickhandled and fired one of his patented snap-wristers high for what appeared to be glory.
A previously sombre ACC crowd alit, but Raanta immediately complained to the official. Arizona coach Rick Tocchet challenged the goal, citing goalie interference.
“Kevin Pollock is a veteran referee. I thought obviously the goalie got speared,” Tocchet said.
“I was pretty confident [it would be overturned]. I mean, any NHL coach out of 31 would’ve called it. You have to call that play.”
Yes, Tocchet has to challenge. Yes, Hyman made contact. But did Raanta have time to reset?
“I wasn’t sure what the call was gonna be,” admitted Clayton Keller, a friend of Matthews’ and the evening’s best forward. “It was one of those where you’re not really sure, so it was good to see it turned our way.”
“You never know,” said Raanta, wondering which way the refs would lean.
“I felt their guy speared me and I went inside the net. I couldn’t get back on time, even though I was trying. I didn’t try to sell it too much. I just tried to get back to my place right, but didn’t have enough time. Good for us.”
And bad for the Maple Leafs, who later allowed two empty-net goals and helped stretch the last-place Coyotes’ win streak to three.
“My stick hits the pad, obviously. I think I was pushed in,” explained Hyman, who thought it would be upheld. “The goalie had enough time get across, and I thought he got into his position well, but I guess that’s how they’re calling goalie interference, so tough break for us.”
Pollock’s gutsy reversal resulted in fans’ throwing debris on and at the ice. Boos rained for minutes.
“We’ve had two of [goalie interference calls] the same way,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “The goal was going in whether he touched him or not because he had time and pushed out, but, the league decides that and not us.”
Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen watched the replay and offered his opinion.
“I didn’t think [Hyman] touched him that much for [Raanta] to take that much time for him to get up. That’s the frustrating part,” Andersen said.
“It’s tough to get a consistent line on that, but sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. It sucks.”
The league itself acknowledged that goalie interference is such a grey area that it declined to institute a two-minute bench penalty for a failed challenge, the way it did for offsides.
Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk said as long as there is any contact, players never know whether a goal will be overturned or not.
“Some of the goalies, they’re smarter than we give them credit for. They’ll try to incite some of that contact,” van Riemsdyk said. “We have a process in place, and you’d like to think that they’re making the right judgment most of the time.”
Arguably robbed of his unlucky 13th goal, Matthews himself didn’t complain. He was more disappointed by his own performance, which hasn’t been consistent since he hurt his upper body.
Not unlike Saturday in Montreal, it wasn’t until he was partnered with Marner that he showed some jump and looked his normal dynamic self.
Matthews usually side-slips hits and steals pucks. On Monday, he got crunched hard a couple times and bobbled rushes through the neutral zone. In these eyes, it was Matthews’ worst game of the season—and he still was a coin flip away from playing hero. (He also rang a post in the shift following the non-goal.)
“I didn’t play very well tonight,” Matthews said. “I don’t really like a lot of plays I made, just turned the puck over. I think it’s just a means of getting back to the level I was playing at before I was injured. It’s obviously frustrating, but it’s what you’re working towards, each and every day, each and every game you want to get back to the point.”
Babcock said the better team won regardless, and Tocchet refused to take credit for keeping Matthews off the score sheet.
“He’s been out for a long time. He just got back in the lineup, what, two nights ago?” Tocchet said. “I don’t know if it’s so much something we did. When you play against Matthews, you need five guys.”
And sometimes a sixth man in the video review booth helps, too.