Maple Leafs’ Matthews, Domi break through in hard-fought comeback

Auston Matthews tied the game in dying seconds, but Brad Marchand's late OT goal along with David Pastrnak's three points helped the Boston Bruins defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3.

TORONTO — Seven hours before his Toronto Maple Leafs took the ice for one of its biggest tests of the campaign — a Saturday-night tilt with the Boston Bruins — Sheldon Keefe sent a message to the leaders of his team. One in particular.

Coming off a stretch that saw Auston Matthews go goalless for four games — with just one in his past nine outings — the coach made clear where he stood on No. 34’s play of late.

“He’s got to do better,” Keefe said Saturday morning. “Don’t focus on the end result, or get concerned with anything other than doing the things that allow you to have success — individually, and for us as a team, most importantly. 

“Auston’s a driver for our team. When he’s going, we’re going.”

By the end of the night, after a hard-fought battle that pushed these Leafs to their fifth extra-time effort in six games, Matthews had his coach singing a different tune.

“I thought he was a beast out there tonight,” Keefe said.

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It was off Matthews’ stick that the home side found some life under the Scotiabank Arena lights Saturday night. The former 60-goal man got the Maple Leafs on the board 12 minutes into the second period — after the B’s had jumped out to a 2-0 lead — and then cashed in a second time with only seconds remaining in the third period, salvaging a point from the near-wreckage.

“I thought he was all over the puck,” Keefe said of his lead sniper. “I thought he attacked the net, he shot the puck. Obviously two huge goals for us. I thought he was excellent.”

The pair of tallies didn’t come easy, though. Not against a Bruins team that has made its name stifling the best offences in the game.

“I thought they were on the puck. I mean, that’s a hard team to play against,” Keefe continued. “They don’t give you much. You’ve got to earn absolutely everything. And they had looks. I mean, Auston’s first goal — that’s just earning it. There’s nothing cute about that.

“We found our way to the interior of the rink, against a team that makes it really hard to do so.”

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The return of that jump in Matthews’ step, the return of that Midas touch, wasn’t lost on his teammates looking on from the bench, too.

“I think tonight they found a little magic again,” defender Simon Benoit said of Matthews and his linemates, William Nylander and Matthew Knies, who combined for a total of 19 shots on net. “They were buzzing, they were skating, they were playing physical.

“When they play like that, they dominate, for sure.”

But the brief return to form for the club’s lead talent wasn’t enough to seal the win, even with some late-game heroics and 40 shots thrown at Boston’s Linus Ullmark. And yet, the hosts are taking the one point earned as a sign of progress.

“I think it’s just two competitive teams,” Matthews said of the eventual 4-3 OT loss, once the final buzzer had sounded. “They’ve been the class of the league the last two years and the way they’ve been playing we knew it was going to be a challenge. I liked the way that we came out and played, and obviously it could’ve went either way.

“It definitely leaves a sour taste in your mouth heading home. But I thought the process that we had, and a lot of really, really good things that we did as a team — you’ve got to take those positives and continue to build momentum moving forward.”

“I thought it was a hard-played hockey game by both teams,” Keefe agreed. “Not a lot between the two teams — two teams playing hard, referees let the teams play. You know, not your typical early-December hockey game. It was a tough game out there. 

“It was fast, competitive, and I thought our guys hung right there, fought their way back, and got us another point.”

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While Matthews pulled that point out of a near-loss, one-timing home the club’s second tying goal of the night in the dying seconds of the third, it was Max Domi who took the first turn as hero.

Down 2-1 after 40 minutes, the Maple Leafs were outshooting the visitors but having difficulty breaking through the suffocating Bruins defence with any type of consistency. But a sprint from Domi pulled the crowd to the edge of their seats.

The puck made its way to Nick Robertson, streaking down the right side of the offensive zone. The 22-year-old flipped it over to Domi, who collected it in the slot with acres of space around him, flashed forehand, then slipped the puck to his backhand and roofed it. The crowd erupted.

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“It’s huge. Huge for him, and a big one [for us],” Keefe said of the goal, Domi’s first in a Maple Leafs sweater. “He’s done well for us — he’s found ways to contribute for us, in different ways, obviously. He’s made some plays to make others look good. So it’s great for him to have that moment.”

“It means a lot,” said Matthews. “It’s huge for him. He’s definitely shown that he’s a distributor and a pass-first guy, but it’s always nice to get the first one off your back. And it was a really big goal for us.”

“Just seeing the crowd respond to his goal like that,” added netminder Joseph Woll, “it was pretty cool.”

The moment wasn’t lost on No. 11 himself, either.

“I’ve said it from Day 1, I’m super happy to be playing at home, in front of my hometown fans. I’m enjoying every second of it,” Domi said from the bowels of Scotiabank Arena post-game, mulling the ovation from the Toronto faithful. Now, the hope is that he can keep them on their feet. “Of course you want to help. You want to contribute once in a while. But I mean, honestly, sometimes they want to go in, sometimes they don’t. Hopefully now we can start stringing some goals together.”

Still, hometown moment aside, team-wide progress aside, there’s only so much enjoyment to take from a night that ends with the other team’s hands raised.

“Of course it feels good to contribute. But that s— is irrelevant when you don’t win,” Domi said of the hard-fought comeback that fell just short. “Obviously we wanted to come away with two points there. But the boys battled back, showed a lot of character against a real good team, a well-coached team. They’re a heck of a hockey club for a reason.

“So, good test, and I think our group showed what we’re capable of. If we find a way to string 60 minutes together like that, we’ll be a tough team to beat as well.”

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