Thornton, Spezza make history as Maple Leafs cruise to playoff berth

Auston Matthews scored a highlight reel goal, Jason Spezza had a two assist night as the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched a playoff spot with a 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.

Jack Campbell is not taking his position for granted.

No, we’re not talking about Campbell’s status as starting goaltender for the first Canadian division team to secure a playoff berth. (Although we could be.)

And no, we’re not talking about his becoming the first Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender in five seasons to surpass Frederik Andersen in wins — a feat Campbell accomplished by securing a 4-1 victory Wednesday at Bell Centre, improving his record to a sparkling 14-2-1. (Although that could count, too.)

We’re talking about Campbell coming to work every day in awe that he’s punching the clock alongside icons.

“You know, you're having a coffee with Jumbo or Spezz, and I find myself just chuckling in the car after practice because I'm like, 'Wow, Jumbo and Spezz are my buddies.' It's pretty cool,” Campbell says. “And then you hear about the records or milestones they meet, and it truly is incredibly special. Not only are they historic hockey players, but they’re historic teammates.”

Make that historic linemates.

In the latest incarnation of Sheldon Keefe’s lineup card, the coach has flanked rookie call-up Adam Brooks with “a couple of living legends,” as Auston Matthews describes them. That unlikely trio has worked hard to craft an identity and strike up some fine chemistry.

From top-two draft picks to charismatic role players, Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza are buzzing around like a pair of the most joyful and determined fourth-line grinders you’ll ever meet.

On a Montreal night, Spezza notched two assists and climbed into a tie with Habs legend Maurice Richard for the 99th-most points in NHL history (966). Incredibly, the minimum-wage employee has amassed more goals (10) and points (26) through 47 games than he did in 58 games with the Leafs last season. Spezza is more productive at 37 than he was at 34.

Thornton made history in Winnipeg Saturday when he became the oldest Maple Leaf to score a goal. For Wednesday’s encore, he registered his 1,100th career assist, joining Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jaromir Jagr and Paul Coffey as the only players to do so.

Yes, he’ll keep the puck for his collection. No, he won’t get all sappy about it.

“I don't look at them, but I've got quite a few. But that's just a lot of hours of playing street hockey with my brothers and pond hockey and been lucky enough to play with a lot of good goal scorers. It's been fun so far,” says Thornton, the league’s oldest forward chugging.

Adds Morgan Rielly: “He gets these achievements, and it seems like nothing for him – he just keeps going. We’re lucky to have a guy like that.”

A guy who hands out nicknames like gum sticks and goes streaking in congratulatory videos that go viral on social media apps he doesn't use.

That character is partnered with another guy, Spezza, whose character inspired the Leafs to contribute salary to their Marlies brethren.

The history Thornton and Spezza are scripting along this ride, what may be a final pitch at an unrealized dream, is not lost on those battling alongside them.

“In fact, I had one of those moments tonight,” admitted a grinning Keefe, who hasn’t been overly prone to sentiment during post-game Zoom pressers.

“Those guys were in the offensive zone snapping the puck around to each other, and it's a cool thing. Those guys have accomplished a great deal. They've been elite, elite players for a very long time. And to have them teaming up for us in that role and being such great leaders for us, it's outstanding. Very cool for them to have their own moments here today. They're both very special, of course. Eleven hundred assists is a lot of assists. I was telling Joe, ‘I don't think I touched the puck 1,100 times in my time in the NHL.’”

Spezza and Thornton’s ascent up the all-time offence charts is blinking in concert with Matthews and Mitch Marner’s own marks as franchise pillars.

With an assist, Marner became the first Maple Leaf to record three 60-point campaigns before his 50th game of the season.

And Matthews’ highlight-reel winner gives him 35 on the year and strengthens his grip on the Leafs’ first-ever Rocket Richard Trophy.

“He’s just elite. He's the elite of the elite. His release is incredible,” Thornton says. “He's the prototypical power forward that can just do it all right now.”

Team history, of course, is the primary objective.

But after 96 days atop the North Division, a clinched playoff spot was never in doubt for a Leafs lineup loaded with talent of all ages.

A first-round collision with these same Habs feels destined, finally, for the first time since the year Thornton was born: 1979.

Toronto has seven games remaining to iron out kinks, heal wounds and figure out lines.

Fans will have plenty of time to sweat and scrutinize come mid-May.

In the meantime, it’s OK to make like Jack Campbell or Auston Matthews — to enjoy a couple of legends snap it around and do their thing.

“It’s pretty awesome at this stage in their career how passionate they are about the team, about winning, about performing every night,” Matthews says.

“To witness them accomplish what they’ve accomplished – obviously, tonight was a big night for both of them.”

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