TORONTO – Of all the wild statistics getting bandied about during Auston Matthews’ stroll to the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, one number sticks out: 23.
That is the age of the youngest Toronto Maple Leafs regulars, the best players on the team — or arguably any team outside of the Edmonton Oilers, for that matter.
Maybe it’s because Toronto is already deep into Year 5 of the Matthews–Mitch Marner era, and that four years of post-season disappointment wore hard on a deeply scarred faithful, that fans might forget that these are still big kids coming into their own.
No wonder a childlike joy has permeated through this explosive season, Matthews and Marner’s first as permanent linemates.
The Leafs have essentially led Canada wire to wire, their 5-1 romp Saturday over a depleted and defeated Vancouver Canucks squad extending their latest win streak to five.
Toronto has outscored opponents 22-7 over its latest heater, and Matthews has registered the club’s past three game-winners, bringing his NHL-leading total to 12.
“Happy birthday, Dad,” Matthews smiled wide post-game.
The best shooter in hockey will ring Brian Matthews tonight, like he does after every match.
“He’s easy,” Matthews said. “We just kinda B.S., I guess, and talk about the game a bit. I’m sure he’s enjoying this day with the win and a couple goals.”
The goals have become as routine as the phone calls.
Marner was asked post-game if it feels like his centreman is on the verge of scoring every time the puck touches his tape.
He considered the question for a beat.
“Well, no,” Marner replied. “I mean, if he's in the D-zone, I don't think so.”
Yet Matthews' first goal on Saturday began with him winning a D-zone draw and triggering a rush up-ice. New left winger Nick Foligno went hard for a forecheck to get the puck to Marner (and gather his fourth assist in four games), and Marner put the thing on Matthews’ blade.
"I love the way they see the game," Foligno said. "They always have a plan every time they step on the ice.
"It just shows how engaged they are and the difference they want to make every time they step on the ice. I think that's so impressive and the reason why they've led this team."
Wrist strength intact, Matthews has scored 17 times in his past 17 games. He has 38 on the season, humming along at a 0.81 goals-per-game pace.
Over 82 games played, that would give him 66.
“I'm just enjoying watching it now, what he's doing. No matter how many games we're playing, he's feeling it,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “The chemistry between [him] and Mitch is obvious. He went through a tough stretch where he battled through injuries and stuff like that and he's obviously feeling better, and you're seeing the results.”
The last player to win the Rocket with 66 goals is no one. Not even close. The award wasn’t invented when superstars were lighting lamps at Matthews’ current pace.
You have to flip back to ’90s-era Mario Lemieux to compare this type of efficiency, and if you were to adjust for era or look at his even-strength production, Matthews’ tear would look even more impressive.
When it comes to goal scoring in short NHL seasons, Matthews has jumped onto a leaderboard with names like Dit Clapper, Cooney Weiland and Babe Dye. This is the level of history we’re talking:
“It's unbelievable. He's definitely a one-of-a-kind player. You see the way he shoots the puck and makes plays, it's tremendous,” said Alex Galchenyuk, who got to know Matthews when they trained together during some private Arizona sessions in the off-season.
"He's a great human, really easy-going. So, a great guy to be around with. He's having a lot of fun on the ice, and it's the same way off the ice.”
Matthews deserves the Hart trophy.
Change my mind!
— Eddie Lack(@eddielack) May 2, 2021
At even-strength, Matthews and Marner have combined for more goals (46) and points (97) than any other duo in the sport.
Matthews has scored a greater portion of his team's gaols (22 per cent) than any other player.
Marner registered his 17th multi-point outing of 2021 on Saturday and was left, as he so often is, to be crowned second star.
Twice this week, shoot-first Matthews tried passing some of the love he’s getting to the best wingman he’s had.
“I don't know if he gets really enough credit with what he's been doing this year and the kind of player that he is and person," Matthews said. "He's just a blast to play with, and I think we both complement each other well.
“No matter who's playing with us, I think every guy has fit in pretty well. We just try to go out there and compete and make plays. Obviously, the end goal is to win games and put the puck in the net. He's been playing awesome, and it's been a blast playing with him.”
Again, we’re talking about 23-year-olds.
Yes, they’re rolling at their best.
But better might lie ahead.