‘A major distraction’: Sheldon Keefe feeds into Auston Matthews’ 70 hype

Dylan Larkin scored the overtime winner to keep the Detroit Red Wings' playoff hopes alive as the team avoided a crushing loss after giving up a three-goal lead in a 5-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ scarred nation of supporters has never seen a player this good chase heights these high.

So, why wouldn’t they flood their home barn in greedy droves, hoping to catch a glimpse of history? A man who can score 70 goals in a single season.

With their favourite team’s playoff seeding now chiselled in stone — third seed in the Atlantic Division, surprise — the final Saturday night of the regular season was all about watching for, waiting for, the puck to fly off Auston Matthews‘ stick, past James Reimer, and into the Detroit Red Wings‘ net.

Not once. No, that wouldn’t suffice.

Like getting dealt 11, or Kendrick aiming at Drake and Cole, this was all about doubling down.

Don’t take our word for it.

Glance around Scotiabank Arena and read the ticket buyers’ homemade signs: WE CAME FOR 70!… MAKING HISTORY: 3 PLUS 4 = 70!… LEGACY 70!… 69, 70!… MANIFESTING 70… I CAME FOR MATTHEWS’ 70th GOAL… BERTUZZI IS SUDBURY STRONG! (OK, maybe not that last one.)

Or listen to the audible buzz spike in volume each time Toronto’s No. 1 centre straddled the boards for an O-zone faceoff or when the Leafs went on the power play.

“It’s really nice,” Matthews said, “to have the support that we have in the city and the fan base and all that stuff. It means a lot. It’s obviously really cool and really special.”

No wonder, then, that even Sheldon Keefe — the same coach who recently announced he was “not concerned about 70 goals, at all” — found himself caught up in the excitement.

The coach lost himself in the moment, just as his half-inspired Maple Leafs lost a 5-4 overtime decision to the hungrier Red Wings, a team desperate for a wild card yet threatening to extend the NHL’s second-longest active playoff drought.

We don’t throw Keefe’s we-before-he vow back at him as a gotcha, but rather as an example of how the power of sports can influence decisions. How the most intoxicating situations can rewrite gameplans written sober.

And once Matthews corrected an early pinged crossbar and made nice with his 69th of the campaign, the whole building quaked with the knowledge that the next shot could be the one.

“Obviously, that’s a major distraction. Doesn’t help us, what we’re trying to accomplish on the ice. But it’s exciting. I get it. Especially when he gets to 69, you can see it,” Keefe said.

“It’s growing. Anticipating. And now you’re feeding it. I’m feeding it. I want it to happen. But I want it for the fans.”

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So, the coach who had so closely been monitoring his superstar’s workload, with an eye toward playoffs, skates Matthews 23:59, his most since Feb. 5. He watches him rip a game-high 10 shots on net and game-high 15 attempts. He throws him out for a final shift lasting three minutes and 33 seconds. Burns his timeout to let him catch a breather.

Keefe goes all-offence on a late power play, and Matthews’ setup man, Max Domi, takes a bad tripping penalty that later leads to Dylan Larkin’s clutch OT power-play winner.

In short, everyone drifts from the team structure and playoff rehearsing that the Leafs have been preaching for weeks now.

And maybe that’s not the worst sin, choosing to play Santa over Scrooge, given the circumstances and stakes. (Heck, if Matthews tucks one more, then Keefe is likely getting praised for grasping the moment and riding the wave.)

Keefe’s own sons, whom he takes to minor hockey rinks around the city, are way too young to have seen 70 by anyone ever. The chase has captured the imagination of their teammates, too.

“I had a dozen 10-year-olds running up to me asking how many Auston’s going to get. Everybody’s excited about that. It’s definitely a thing,” Keefe said. “I get the hype around it.”

The coach has other worries, though.

Anytime he gets a role player back from injury, another one goes down.

His goaltending, so solid in March, appears more susceptible in April.

And the Leafs’ concerning penalty kill — just 1-for-3 on this night — is trending in the wrong direction again.

The Maple Leafs have but two games left, Tuesday in Sunrise and Wednesday in Tampa.

Both are meaningless to their standings position. Both could equal 69 + 1.

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Has any head coach in the history of hockey healthy-scratched a player riding a career-best eight-game goal streak?

How difficult does Keefe’s decision become now, to hold back Matthews or give the fans one more goal?

“Well, I don’t think these fans are going to travel with us on the road. But we’ll make the decision that we think is best for the team,” Keefe said.

“We got guys dropping right now. We’re going to have to dress 18 skaters. So, we got some guys that will not be available for us. So that, in itself, is going to be a factor. And the salary cap is what it is. We can only have so many guys. There are lots of things to sort out here in the next little bit.”

And only one big reason to tune in.

Fox’s Fast Five

• How is Leafs Nation feeling about Ilya Samsonov?

The goaltender surrendered 11 goals Thursday and Saturday, losing the final two home games of the season.

After the goalie allowed four in the first period, contributing to a 4-1 deficit, Keefe and his staff discussed pulling him.

“It wasn’t unanimous by any means,” Keefe revealed. “I felt our team was gonna be better, and I felt Sammy needed to be part of that. Obviously, glad it worked out the way it did, because he was outstanding.”

Samsonov held the fort in periods 2 and 3. His stop on Lucas Raymond alone in front with the score tied 4-4 was needed to reach overtime. Still, this was his shakiest week since December.

“He’s had to battle his way from a difficult start. And even at times, in games, when things don’t always go his way, you can just see how hard he’s fighting, doing everything he can to give us a chance and make that next save,” John Tavares said. “He certainly did that again today.”

• Keefe says he’d had an idea of his Game 1 lineup “for quite some time now,” with the caveat that nothing is finalized until Game 82.

To that end, there is uncertainty about the readiness of Calle Järnkrok (hand).

Bobby McMann left Saturday’s game early due to a lower-body injury (severity unknown).

Jake McCabe took a close-range Larkin shot in the face (his cheek is swollen something nasty, but he should be fine).

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And Joel Edmundson needed a night off after blocking another painful shot Thursday.

“Seems like pucks are a bit of a magnet to his feet,” Keefe said. “But that is a credit to how he plays and a credit to him for stepping right in and putting himself in harm’s way once again. It is the type of guy he is.”

As for the top line, go ahead and scribble Bertuzzi–Matthews–Domi in ink.

“That’s a real thing. This is not just a short-term thing,” Keefe said. “What you’ve seen of late is how we see it going forward.”

• Pending free agent Patrick Kane says he hasn’t thought about where he’ll play next season. Assisting on Larkin’s winner, he has put up 46 points in 48 games as a healthy 35-year-old in Detroit. A return would make sense.

“Nothing but positive things to say. It’s been great being a Wing and playing at LCA, and the way the fans have embraced me,” Kane said.

Cap space isn’t an issue.

• Matthews leads all NHLers with 20 posts and crossbars pinged this season.

• Matt Murray played his first pro hockey game since April 2, 2023 on Saturday — a conditioning start with the Marlies.

The veteran made 22 saves on 27 shots in a 6-5 win over the Syracuse Crunch, and the farm team punched its ticket to the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It’s been tremendous how he’s gone about things. It’s been very much on the periphery. You see him in there every day. You see him working. It’s often by himself and at odd hours when there’s not a lot of people working. You have a good appreciation for how long a road it’s been,” said Keefe, cautioning that Murray’s comeback is independent of the Leafs’ playoff prep.

“Just the fact he’s going down to play in the American League is a tremendous story.”

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