‘He means everything’: Auston Matthews hits 50 at record-breaking speed in Arizona

Hometown hero Auston Matthews didn't do the Arizona crowd any favours when it came to taking down the Coyotes as the superstar netted two in a 6-3 win for the Toronto Maple Leafs. William Nylander also scored twice, reaching the 30-goal mark.

TEMPE, Ariz. — Auston Matthews opened up his house to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Then the Maple Leafs took over the Arizona Coyotes‘ house.

How fitting it is that Matthews — who has set up a residency atop the NHL’s goal-scoring race — scored his 50th (and 51st) of the season during his one trip home to his native Arizona on Wednesday, casually playing his usual, multi-point starring role in a 6-3 stomp of a rebuilding franchise mired in an 11-game losing skid.

Let’s be honest: With another playoff berth nearly a lock, these days life around the scorching-hot Maple Leafs revolves around No. 34 and his chase for 70. Or is it 75?

So, on the eve of his 50th, Matthews happily welcomed his teammates to his expansive home — complete with sport court, golf simulator and swimming pool — nestled near the foot of Camelback Mountain.

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“He’s got a good setup,” teammate Noah Gregor said. “It’s always nice when you’re able to play in your hometown. Guys are able to see what your life is like, and he’s got a great place. Guys got to check out his place, and he’s a great host.”

Judging by a couple of sunburns, the boys had some fun in the sun on a rare day off in the desert, enjoying their downtime at Casa Papi. More important: They took care of business once it was time to clock in.

“It felt good. Nice to kinda host the guys, and we got beautiful weather and all that stuff. So, we really lucked out,” said Matthews, who brushed off his second 50-goal performance as just “a small step in a long season.”

Matthews routinely downplays and defers, but we are witnessing something spectacular here.

By reaching 50 in 54 games — without a single empty-netter(!) — Matthews becomes the fastest U.S.-born player to touch the milestone (the previous record of 62 games was shared by Matthews and Kevin Stevens) and the fastest since Mario Lemieux ripped 50 in 50 back in 1995-96.

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Matthews wanted to do it here, in front of 25 friends and family members, just as his teammates wanted it for him. 

Just as the hordes of vocal Leafs fans, the ones hollering “M-V-P!” whenever the local boy done good, wanted to be one of 5,000 to say they were in the barn for No. 50.

“I was trying to give him one the whole first three shifts, four shifts we had together. So, I’ll probably get yelled at for not shooting a couple of those,” said favourite wingman Mitch Marner, who helped set up both Matthews strikes at Mullett Arena. 

“We’re lucky to have him. He’s in his hometown. A lot of people here. A lot of family. A lot of loved ones. And he’s meant a lot to the city. So, to get it here, it’s pretty special.”

A few hours before Matthews hit 50 at home, linemate Matthew Knies reflected on his own minor hockey days and how incredible it was for a young, aspiring Arizonan player to know that a superstar had emerged from his home state.

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“He means everything,” Knies said. 

“You know, when I was growing up, he was someone to look forward to. He’s a big inspiration for a lot of kids growing up. I’m sure he is a big reason as to why a lot of kids picked up a hockey stick. He’s [instrumental] to Arizona hockey, and he means a lot to this community.”

Now on pace for a ridiculous 76 goals, Matthews and everyone in his orbit, everyone glued to the show, expects to see him light the lamp when they step into the arena.

By scoring 25.1 per cent of his club’s goals, Matthews has thrust himself into the thick of the Hart Trophy debate, and he should garner some Selke votes too.

“He’s a great leader,” Gregor said. “His work ethic is the one thing I’ve noticed — it’s really high. He’s always going in practice. He makes it hard on us in practice. He obviously leads by example in games. The way he plays, the way he competes, he is a full 200-foot player, along with being the greatest goal scorer in the league right now.”

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Led by Matthews and rounded out by some elevated role players, the Maple Leafs enjoyed a season-high five-game win streak and outscored their opposition 27-11 during Morgan Rielly‘s suspension, which has now been served in full.

“Morgan, in essence, was defending the pride of the group and the pride of the logo,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I mean, this team means so much to Morgan Rielly, and in that moment he shows you how much he cares about our team and what we’re doing.

“If anything, I thought it was a real wakeup call for our team to get real serious about winning and taking care of games and rallying around the moment. The guys, to me, have very much done that. And it’s a good chance for us to continue to build upon that now and welcome Morgan back.”

Rielly returns Thursday in Las Vegas, land of playing cards, where Matthews will try to pick up 52.

Fox’s Fast Five

• William Nylander is not only riding a five-game goal streak and not only (quietly) gathered his fourth 30-goal season Wednesday. 

He’s also clairvoyant, apparently.

“I’m not gonna lie. I was thinking when I sat in the [penalty] box before the third period started: I might get a breakaway,” he said, smiling. “I dunno. Then it happened. So, we’ll take it.

“I was feeling a breakaway coming.” 

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• The wait for a healthy Joseph Woll continues, and the Maple Leafs are careful not to place a target date for his return.

Out since Dec. 7 with a high-ankle sprain, the goaltender will get in a couple conditioning practises with the Marlies this week with an eye toward a start in Laval on the weekend.

“We will take it from there as to whether to give him more time there or bring him back,” Keefe said. “It is really going to be based on how he feels. Quite honestly, we had a bit of a plan a week ago for him to go down there, spend some time, and build his way back to be prepared to join us on this road trip. He didn’t feel comfortable or ready at that time. 

“It is really just about how he feels. He will take it day to day from there and then make a decision. It is probably more on Joseph at this point than it is on us.”

• The red-hot Bobby McMann opened the scoring with his seventh goal in the past five games. That makes nine for a guy who didn’t make the team out of camp and is on a $762,500 salary. 

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McMann has more goals than the likes of Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, David Kämpf, Noah Gregor and Nick Robertson — despite playing fewer games than all of them.

• Toronto’s power play has not missed a beat, scoring eight times over the past four games.

With Rielly out, Timothy Liljegren ran point on the top unit in those games and racked up seven assists.

“Easy job: Just give it to Matty,” Liljegren says. “I feel like my confidence has been getting better each game here, so it’s been feeling good.”

• Marner is playing the best hockey of his season. He has piled up 17 points during an eight-game streak.

The key, according to Marner: “Moving the puck. Hanging on to it. Finding open ice and just letting my skill kinda do its thing. I’ve been fortunate to find some guys in good areas.”

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