‘I wanted it’: Matthews’ great chase for 70 masks Maple Leafs’ concerns

Nikita Kucherov makes NHL history becoming the fifth player of all-time to record 100+ assists in a single season as the Tampa Bay Lightning take care of the Toronto Maple Leafs keeping Auston Matthews from his illustrious 70th goal on the season.

TAMPA — Hockey prides itself on being the ultimate team game. But on this night, the full 60 minutes spun around two individuals.

One who joined an uber-exclusive club, and one who ended a crossbar’s clang shy.

Sixty-nine is nice and all. Yet Auston Matthews‘ attempt to become the first 70-goal man in 31 years was so overt and so fierce, so anticipated and so hotly debated, The Chase had begun to overshadow what, ostensibly, were supposed to be fine-tuning rehearsals to improve the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ team play heading into playoffs.

The pursuit that felt valiant for so long became to feel like, well, something other than hockey toward the end.

Since scoring his 69th goal on the weekend, Matthews ripped 24 shots on net over the team’s final two-and-a-half games. All saved.

And in Wednesday’s mess of a 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Matthews registered 16 attempts. But for a couple inches a couple times, it would’ve been. A pinged iron here, a goal-line save there.

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All this with 70-goal legend Phil Esposito calling the action for the local broadcast and Matthews’ proud parents, Brian and Ema, waiting on the edge of their Amalie Arena seats.

“I wanted it, for sure. But, you know, it just wasn’t meant to be,” Matthews acknowledged as the curtain drew on the chase, the season.

“When you turn the page, the most important thing is the team and the team’s success and making sure that I’m pulling my weight and doing what I can as a leader on this team and individually to help the team win — especially as we go into the post-season. So, that’s where my focus is. And I think that’s kind of where my mindset has been at all year.”

Regardless the final total amassed by the Rocket Richard Trophy winner, Matthews’ respect has only ratcheted among his peers and teammates, with everyone from Sidney Crosby to Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin to Steven Stamkos throwing him flowers this month.

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“What a year. What an incredible year to watch live, you know?” marvels Mark Giordano, the oldest skater standing. “Seventy goals or 69 goals. But what he did all year without the puck defensively in both ends of the rink, he’s obviously been what drives our team night in and night out.

“It was just a matter of bad luck here at the end not to get to actually get to the number 70.”

Added Keefe: “It’s been fun to watch. The way he’s played these last two games, give him those types of chances and those types of shots [again], he might have got 75.”

Irony packs a cruel sense of humour. 

Toronto’s quartet of scorers on this night were mostly unlikely. Called-up depth forward Pontus Holmberg and fourth-line tough guy Ryan Reaves found the net. So did T.J. Brodie, who picked a fine time to snap the NHL’s longest active goal drought (111 games).

Brodie’s point blast on a delayed penalty flew past Matthews net-front. Right there for a tip or rebound that never materialized. Brodie, who hasn’t been able to buy a goal in months says “100 per cent” he would’ve preferred an assist. 

Then, with time draining and the Leafs trailing by three, coach Sheldon Keefe pulled the goalie anyway. But it was John Tavares, not Matthews, who bulged the net 6-on-5. A meaningless goal in a meaningless game — for the visitors.

Tampa’s Hart Trophy candidate, Nikita Kucherov, did reach his magic number — 100 assists — fuelling multiple rounds of “M-V-P!” chants in his home barn.

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“If we were going to give up four, we would’ve been cool if 34 got one of them. There’s no doubt. It wasn’t without trying. I think he had like 16 shot attempts and 11 or 12 shots on goal, and he hit a crossbar,” opposing coach Jon Cooper said.

“You talk about the exploits of Nikita Kucherov. Auston Matthews is right up there with him. He’s just a different player and he’s a pure goal scorer. The one thing about Auston is he’s going to have 69, but I think 70’s in his future and beyond. It’s just tough when you get close, and you don’t do it.”

Even more difficult to digest would be the Maple Leafs squandering an all-time regular season from their best player with a lacklustre showing in the post-season.

Toronto exits the 82-game grind on a four-game losing skid, tied for their worst of the season, in which they gave up three leads and 22 goals.

Cooper didn’t dress a full bench, scratching his No. 1 goalie, No. 1 defenceman, No. 1 shutdown centre, and the Lightning still made the Leafs look like a bunch of guys who don’t take their jobs seriously.

If these games have been meaningless to the team, they have also been concerning and, at times, downright embarrassing.

“I couldn’t even tell you the score of any of those games, including the one we just finished,” said Keefe, who revealed that he used Wednesday’s intermission to study video of the Bruins.

But what about the smart details and structured habits of these tune-up contests?

“They’re not there all the time,” Keefe dismissed. “They’re not going to be. It’s human nature.”

Also human nature: Finding it difficult to snap into a disciplined, well-organized and inspired hockey team overnight.

Yet that will be the challenge facing Toronto between now and 8 p.m. ET Saturday, when puck drops at TD Garden and the habits of the Leafs’ past week will get them burned.

At least Matthews gets it.

“Definitely not how we want to be playing going into the post-season. And I don’t think we can just think we’re going to turn it on come this Saturday,” Matthews said. 

“This is where we want to have our success. And this is where we want to make sure that we’re elevating our game and, for myself individually, want to take another step.”

Wednesday night drew a line between reflection and scrutiny, appreciation and anticipation.

“Sixty-nine is pretty damn good, too,” said Keefe, who saw the game clock frozen at 34 seconds and took it as an omen. 

The coach has a feeling, a hope. 

“More great things to come for Auston and our team,” Keefe said.

Which may well be prophecy. But it won’t be if the team doesn’t flick the proverbial switch.


Fox’s Fast Five

• Speaking of milestones missed by an inch, William Nylander finished the season with 98 points and was unable to top his career-best 40 goals despite having 11 games to do so. 

Over the past eight days, Nylander had one perceived goal wiped off due to goalie interference, a primary assist subtracted via successful offside challenge, and a secondary assist changed upon further review of a tipped goal.

Frustration is evident.

“I think in the last week, Willy’s sort of shown that he’s done with regular-season hockey. He’s ready to move along. But I’m not concerned about Willy.”

(Nylander was not made available to reporters post-game.)

• Did we just witness the final game of Giordano’s career?

Regardless: What a run.

“This time of year is what it’s all about, right?” says Giordano, who will begin the post-season in the press box. “Excited for playoffs. Excited for what lies ahead.”

• Part of the Maple Leafs’ preparation for Game 1 in Boston was to grant starting goalie Ilya Samsonov a full week’s rest between games.

Samsonov gave up 11 goals in his past two starts, so he has gone back into the lab with goalie coach Curtis Sanford this week to focus on his technique and get his mindset sharp.

“He’s responded well from that,” Keefe says.

• Nylander is the only Maple Leaf who played all 82 games this season. Underrated durability. He skated in all 82 last season as well, and in 81 the year prior.

Matthews finished 2023-24 as the team leader in goals (69), points (107), game-winning goals (eight), and plus/minus (+31).

Marner led the club in assists (59), Max Domi penalty minutes (118), and Samsonov wins (23).

• Cade Webber, the unsigned NCAA defence prospect whose rights were acquired by Toronto, is traveling with the team. No entry-level deal is official yet, but consider it done.

In other roster news, we’d be stunned if Max Domi (undisclosed) and surprised if Calle Järnkrok (hand) aren’t in the Game 1. Bobby McMann (lower body) feels more like a long shot.

Here’s my best guess for Toronto’s Game 1 lineup (with the expectation that Keefe will often load up a Nylander – Tavares – Marner super line). Toughest call is whether to play T.J. Brodie or Timothy Liljegren on the third pair:

Bertuzzi – Matthews – Domi

Knies – Tavares – Marner

Järnkrok – Holmberg – Nylander

Dewar – Kämpf – Reaves

Rielly – Lyubushkin

Benoit – McCabe

Edmundson – Liljegren

Samsonov starts


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