With historic 60th goal, Matthews takes throne as top sniper in today's NHL

Auston Matthews scored two goals, including his 60th of the season, while Jack Campbell stopped all 20 of the shots he faced as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-0.

TORONTO — Alex Ovechkin. Steven Stamkos. Auston Matthews.

The list of players who’ve clawed their way to the 60-goal summit over the past two decades is brief as it is telling. Names that carry weight. Names that made history. Names signifying talent that promised greatness from the start.

The Rocket Richard Trophy and the ever-growing reel of gorgeous snipes did much of the heavy lifting, but Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena, Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Auston Matthews earned his place on that list and sealed his ascent as he tucked in his 60th goal of the 2021-22 campaign — a milestone no player in the NHL has touched in 10 years, a peak that’s been reached only twice in the past 20.

It’s the highest sum Matthews has ever collected, sure. The most any player in the Maple Leafs’ 105-year history has ever put up, incredibly. But it’s also something more — it’s a torch being passed. It’s a throne being relinquished. Ovechkin remains perhaps the greatest pure goal-scorer to ever touch NHL ice. But there should be no question now, if there was before Tuesday, about where No. 34 ranks among his generation of goal-scorers, where he ranks among the best in the NHL right at this moment.

With his 60th, Matthews set the transfer in motion. From The Great Eight, to Papi: the crown of Top Sniper in today’s NHL.

It took a two-goal night from the Maple Leafs’ star pivot to seal that ascent, Matthews potting No. 59 late in the second period against the Detroit Red Wings, corralling a Jason Spezza dish from behind the net and sweeping it forehand-to-backhand to slip it into the cage. Chants of ‘MVP! MVP!’ erupted from the crowd as he skated back to the bench.

The historic milestone marker came a period later, as the Maple Leafs circled like sharks on the power play. After the Red Wings did everything they could to occupy any lane that led to No. 34, Matthews picked up the puck along the right wall with a determined look about him, deciding to make the magic happen himself. He took off, curling at the blue line, setting course for the net as the seas parted, and walked right down main street before unleashing that wicked wrist shot from the slot.

No. 60, with authority. And with more ‘MVP!’ chants raining down as blue jerseys swarmed him, for good measure.

“It was pretty special, honestly,” Matthews said of the atmosphere that enveloped him in that moment. “Just the reception from my teammates, the crowd, everything. It just kind of sends chills down your bones. It’s kind of hard to put into words.”

There was no containing the Scotiabank Arena crowd from there. A few minutes passed before the game could be resumed, so boisterous was the ovation from the Maple Leafs faithful. When it did, every blue and white dash up the ice brought another roar from the crowd, the clock eventually ticking down to seal the 3-0 Maple Leafs win.

Off the ice and out of his gear after the final buzzer sounded, that navy blue Maple Leafs ballcap back on his head, Matthews took a moment to reflect on the path that brought him here. And, more specifically, the people who did — dad Brian and mom Ema.

“You know, it’s hard not to think about a little bit of childhood memories, just all the sacrifices they made for me, and just the constant support and love from them,” he said. “I haven’t been able to speak to them yet, but I know I’ll talk to them when I get home. They mean a lot to me, and obviously I wouldn’t be here without them.”

For his new family, the one he shares a locker room with, the one that gathered around him on the ice to cherish a bit of history made on Tuesday night, the moment was no less meaningful.

“It’s special. It’s unique. It’s rare,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said of his star sniper after the game. “I’m just really happy for him. He works extremely hard — I know the abilities that he has, but he works extremely hard at his game, he works extremely hard off the ice. He takes his craft very seriously. So, to see him at the top of his game, and reaching these milestones, it’s outstanding.”

The grins that spread across the bench as Matthews dropped to one knee for his customary fist-pump celly told the story of how the rest of the squad felt about it.

“The guys were really excited,” continued Keefe. “The guys feel so happy for him, because he’s our leader. He does so many other things, and you want to see him get rewarded. And the guys also feel a part of it, as they should. … He gives so much to his game and to our team. It’s great for him to have that moment.”

Though the third-year Maple Leafs bench boss seems a fresh face among the coaching ranks, he logged enough time as a pro in his own playing days to appreciate the kind of talent Toronto has in Matthews. And the names Keefe lined up alongside during his own tenure as an NHLer, the standard he has to compare No. 34 with, were a long way from nobodies.

“I played with Vinny Lecavalier in Tampa. Marty St. Louis, Brad Richards, guys like that. Coaching a guy like Auston, he’s pretty special and unique in the way that he scores goals,” Keefe said. “The hardest thing to do in our league is to score goals at even-strength. That’s the hardest thing to do in the game. And he does that on a level that, it seems nobody’s able to do it anywhere near the same level.

“You know, that’s special.”

Where it goes from here for Matthews is anyone’s guess. Ovechkin took that 60-goal thread and kept pulling, spinning it into seven more Rocket Richard campaigns, six more 50-goal masterpieces. Stamkos’s unspooled more haphazardly, the next decade of his career passing without either.

But the pair are bound by that bit of hockey history, by their membership in that extra-exclusive club. And regardless of what happens next, Matthews is a part of that too.

“It’s humbling,” the young Leaf said of becoming the third piece of that historic trio. “It’s a big honour just to be in the same breath as those two guys, and what they’ve been able to accomplish in their careers. You know, I’m still striving to kind of be on that level. So, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Indeed, the true test looms just over the horizon. Because there’s another thing that connects Ovechkin and Stamkos and their careers post-60-snipes, something that allowed their personal accomplishments to be celebrated without caveats — both went on to cement their legacies with championship rings.

For Matthews and his Leafs, that’s the next summit. Performances like Tuesday night’s — which clinched home ice for Toronto’s next post-season test — hint at the potential to perhaps get there, or at least to make a real go of it. But Leafs Nation has one more week to practise patience before those questions can truly be answered.

For now, all eyes turn to Friday night’s tilt with the Boston Bruins. One last chance to hone skills and prepare bodies, one last game to close out a historic season, to celebrate what 2021-22 brought, before it’s crumpled up so the real story can be written.

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