Fastest to 50, Maple Leafs’ Matthews has bigger goals: ‘I have a job to do’

Auston Matthews scored to become the first player to hit the 50-goal mark this season and William Nylander added a pair of goals as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Winnipeg Jets 7-3.

“Shooters shoot.” —Auston Matthews

TORONTO – The crazy thing isn’t that he made history happen.

The crazy thing is how it happened, and how long they had to wait for it to happen.

The clock on the Auston Matthews 50 Goal Watch started ticking the same night of his NHL career, when the teenager from Arizona hit the Ottawa Senators with the four. The rookie finished with 40 that season, and his lamp-lighting pace has never been so slow since.

Injuries limited the franchise centre to 34 in 2017-18 and 37 in 2018-19, but he was on pace for 45 in each of those campaigns.

Matthews’ knack for the net kicked into hyperdrive in 2019-20 and 2020-21, but a worldwide pandemic halted his totals at 47 and 41 in those marvellous, maddening seasons — even though he was tracking 55 and 65, respectively, over 82 games.

As long as a black hole didn’t suck up Scotiabank Arena into a multiverse, the Big 5-Oh was going to happen sooner or sooner. It felt inevitable.

Or, as William Nylander put it this week: “He’s calm. We all know he’s gonna get 50. No worries.”

What we didn’t know is how, exactly, Matthews would do it.

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As the Toronto Maple Leafs crawled back from 0-2 and 2-3 deficits against the Winnipeg Jets Thursday to seize the night — and a thick slice of revenge — Nylander (three points for a career-best 64), Ilya Mikheyev (three points, including Toronto’s NHL-leading 11th shorthanded strike), and Mark Giordano (first goal for his boyhood team) were all in the throes of memories.

Yet the player voted Most Likely to Score by his peers had yet to pop on the board during the eventual 7-3 comeback victory.

It was not for not trying.

Knowing a four-game road trip was in the offing, Matthews ripped a game-high six shots on net and attempted seven more that were blocked or zipped wide.

Alternating chants of “Fif-ty!” and “We! Want! Fif-ty!” swelled in sections of the frothing home barn.

“Oh, yeah,” Giordano said. “Every time he got the puck, there was a buzz. Especially on the power-play and in the zone. He had some really good looks, too.”

The match was essentially over, but with the desperate Jets pulling Eric Comrie for an extra skater, why beat traffic when you can witness something that hasn’t been done since Matthews was negative three years old?

After David Kämpf clanged the post of the vacant net, there was an air of certainty about who would finish the job. The same guy who won the 2021 Rocket Richard Trophy without a single empty-net goal.

“I don’t know if I ever really envisioned it being an empty-netter goal, but I’ll take it,” smiled Matthews at the podium.

He was sopping wet from all the water bottles his teammates showered upon him when entering the dressing room.

“It’s awesome. Just love and support from all these guys. We got an extremely close group, and this obviously doesn’t happen without all these guys on this team,” Matthews said.

“It’s really special to do it here, in front of all the fans. The energy and the atmosphere and all that goes into it makes it a lot of fun.”

As fans littered the ice with tossed caps and giveaway T-shirts for a non-hat-trick goal, Matthews’ coach and teammates soaked it in.

For Giordano, he flashed back to Jarome Iginla’s 50-goal runs in Calgary.

For Nylander, he was whisked all the way to childhood.

“Pretty unreal. It actually reminded me of when I was younger, and my dad [Michael] was playing Washington. Ovie scored 50 one night when I was there. It was the night where he did the [hot stick celebration]. That’s brought back some memories, and, I mean, it’s just incredible.”

For coach Sheldon Keefe, who routinely preaches team over everything, it was important to stop and recognize the individual.

“I thought it was great to see the fans have that moment for Auston, and for Auston to accomplish that on home ice,” Keefe said. “A pretty special thing. I mean, it’s a long time since a Leaf has scored 50.”

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Not since Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94.

Rick Vaive did it thrice, topping the leaderboard with 54 in 1981-82.

Gary Leeman ripped 51 in 1989-90.

And that’s it. A club of four members.

None accomplished the feat as swiftly as Matthews, who only needed 62 games. His 91 goals in 114 games since the start of 2020-21 dwarfs his closest threat; Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl has 80 in 124 games.

“It’s pretty impressive how he’s been able to do it,” Morgan Rielly said. “He’s been incredibly consistent for us. He shows up every night, plays very well on both ends of the puck. The way that he’s able to score close to the net, from distance, whatever it may be, is very impressive.”

“Fifty goals is a huge benchmark,” added Wayne Simmonds, a 1,000-gamer who topped out at 32. “And to see a guy play the way he has, not only offensively but defensively, it takes your breath away every single night.”

On the night of Matthews’ historic four-goal debut, the Maple Leafs lost in overtime. Matthews, in his postgame interview, lamented his own defensive effort on the winner.

He enjoyed scoring the goals, sure. Shooters shoot, right? But he wanted the win.

So, it was telling on this night, with the dial cranked to AM3450, what a 38-year-old Giordano had to say about the Leafs’ youngest forward after spending four games in his company.

“His shot, his release, it’s pretty impressive,” Giordano began.

“I’ve been more impressed, honestly, watching him play defensively since I’ve been here. It’s been unreal the way he backchecks and plays in his own end.”

As much as he soaked up the moment, Matthews downplayed his starring role in the record books.

Would he allow himself to ponder his place in Maple Leafs lore on the night he scored 50 the fastest?

“Maybe when I’m done playing, I can think about that stuff,” Matthews replied.

“Right now I have a job to do, and it’s not finished yet.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Love seeing John Tavares’s attention to detail. As soon as he celebrated Giordano’s first goal as a Maple Leaf, he beelined it to the official so he could retrieve the milestone puck for his teammate.

• Betcha 36 bucks Jack Campbell starts Saturday in Philadelphia.

• Blake Wheeler did this to Giordano, previously flawless as a Maple Leaf:

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• Good first period for the old guys, with all three goal-scorers — Wheeler, Giordano and Paul Stastny — members of the NHL’s ever-shrinking 35 and Older Club.

Giordano became the oldest defenceman in 52 years to score for the Leafs. (A 40-year-old Tim Horton scored his final one in 1970… and never did anything of note afterward.)

Eighteen goals for Stastny, 36, marks the most in a single season for him since 2015-16.

• Quote of the Night:

“Maybe the best play of the day was David Kämpf hitting the post.” —Sheldon Keefe

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