TORONTO — When you’re as big as Auston Matthews, when you’re doing what he’s doing every night for the most-watched team in the National Hockey League, it gets to the point where you can almost blot out the sun. But as much as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ latest win on Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens was yet another episode of the universally-acclaimed Matthews Show, there are a few subplots worthy of shining a light on.
For a minute, though, it really did feel like there would be nothing to talk about aside from Matthews’ brilliance. While the game wound up being a close 3-2 Toronto win, it seemed like No. 34 — fresh off breaking Rick Vaive’s single-season franchise goals record in Dallas on Thursday — might have himself something akin to Darryl Sittler’s famous 10-point night from so many years ago.
Matthews’ first goal opened the scoring and came with 6:28 left in the first period. It occurred on a broken play that led to Montreal goalie Jake Allen having to leave the game because he injured himself while extending his left leg out in a futile attempt to stop Matthews’ backhand. Twenty-seven seconds later, Matthews chugged over the blue line and put the first shot on replacement goalie Sam Montembault into the back of the net.
2-0 home side; crowd losing its mind and goals No. 57 and 58 on the year already on the board for Matthews, who was clearly touched by the video tribute he received earlier in the period to honour goal No. 55 establishing a new team-high. It felt like the NHL’s first 60-goal season in a decade might happen before the intermission.
“There’s a moment there,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe after the game. “Especially [when] the second one goes in, [Jason Spezza] turned around and kind of gave me the eyes like, ‘This is something special.’ No doubt. It’s fun. I was surprised he stopped at two, to be honest, with the way he’s playing; you felt like he was going to have a serious night.”
If Spezza and Keefe are still taken aback by the Matthews magic, just imagine what it’s like for the guys who’ve only recently got a front-row ticket to the show. “The guys we traded for at the trade deadline have made comments after games about his play and his performance and what he’s able to do,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly.
It's not hard to see why people are doing a double-take. Matthews’ most recent pair of markers gave him 51 goals in his past 50 contests, making him the first person since Mario Lemieux in the mid-90s to score 50 goals in a 50-game stretch of the same season. He’s currently scoring .87 goals-per-game, a rate only 10 guys (on 21 different occasions) in the history of the league have finished a season at. The last one to do it was Lemieux, one year before Matthews was born.
Still, despite the fact Matthews had two goals by the time the Canadiens had but three shots, the lid stayed on this game. The Canadiens closed the gap before the first period ended and clawed back a second time in the middle frame to make it 3-2 after John Tavares had scored to put Toronto ahead by two goals earlier in the stanza.
While the crowd was euphoric at times celebrating Matthews or the fact Mitch Marner ran his point streak to 13 games with a first-period assist, they were also forced into some nail-biting during this affair as the Leafs tried to deliver a win against a basement-dwelling blood rival that is playing decent hockey these days, had beaten the Leafs the past two times these squads met and, oh, by the way, delivered Toronto its latest playoff nightmare less than 12 months ago.
This wasn’t just two more points on the line; it was a chance to beat the Canadiens, to hit 100 points on the season and officially clinch a playoff spot. This was an opportunity to send supporters home feeling even better than they were when they poured into Scotiabank Arena ready to fete their record-breaking star. And for all Matthews did on the attack, the good vibes would have been killed without some key contributions at the other end of the rink.
“For good reason, we’re celebrating Auston and we’re celebrating the run Mitch is on, [but] there’s a ton of really good things happening all around our team and all throughout our lineup,” Keefe said. “Add another one to the list tonight because I thought Erik Kallgren was outstanding. For me, this was his best game — at least the most comfortable I felt [watching him] on the bench.”
Kallgren — forced out of his most recent start by a shot to the jaw Tuesday in Florida, and making just the seventh start of his NHL career — was fantastic when called upon. He stopped two first-period breakaways and another clean 2-on-1 opportunity in that period. In the second, he stoned Josh Anderson on a point-blank one-timer during a stretch of four-on-four hockey. And when Brendan Gallagher managed to sneak behind the defence in the third period and get in alone on the Toronto goalie, Kallgren closed the wickets to deny the Montreal forward’s five-hole attempt.
“I felt better,” the Swedish freshman said. “I hadn’t’ really been satisfied with my game the last couple games, so it was nice to get this win and the feeling I had today.”
In front of Kallgren, the Leafs defence corps continues to take form. Jake Muzzin played his third game since returning from a concussion earlier this week. Meanwhile, deadline acquisition Mark Giordano has now suited up for 10 games in blue and white and the team is 8-1-1 in that stretch. Giordano was on the ice in the dying seconds against Montreal, as the Leafs made a one-goal lead stand up despite having a man in the penalty box. Muzzin and Giordano allow Keefe to balance out his pairs in a way that should increasingly mean good things for the less-glamorous end of the ice.
“It feels like there’s a lot [fewer] times where teams can wear on us shift over shift,” Keefe said. “We seem to be able to put out a fire quicker because we have guys on each pair who have the ability to do that and certainly ‘Gio’ is one of the best we have at that.”
Still, you know the next time the Leafs hit the ice — they host the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday — the talk will inevitably shift back to the guy doing all the damage up front. Two more goals and
Matthews will have just the third 60-goal season of the past 24 seasons after Steven Stamkos hit the number right on in 2011-12 and Alex Ovechkin notched 65 in 2007-08.
“Obviously he’s doing something special right now,” Rielly said. “And to be a part of it is a lot of fun.”