Persistent Matthews, Maple Leafs avoid getting goalie’d in 57-shot thriller

Auston Matthews picked up his 30th goal of the season with the OT-winner and Morgan Reilly tallied a pair of assists as the Toronto Maple Leafs pulled out a win despite a 55-save performance from Lukas Dostal defeating the Anaheim Ducks 2-1.

ANAHEIM — Whether it was ex–Maple Leaf Ilya Lyubushkin pulling an early Auston Matthews tap-in off the Anaheim goal line, William Nylander pinging a post, or Ducks backup Lukas Dostal making 49 consecutive saves to start the performance of his life, the thought crossed Sheldon Keefe’s mind:

It might be one of those nights.

One of those nights where the opposing goaltender — even more appropriate when it’s a goalie you gotta Google, isn’t it? — stands on his head and you leave the rink shaking yours.

Because hockey’s beautifully cruel nature states that, no, you don’t always get what you deserve.

Or, as John Tavares, reminds us: When you play 82 of these suckers a season, you’re bound to get goalie’d in a couple.

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Until the 55th minute of Wednesday’s lopsided affair at Honda Center, the Cup contender was beating up the team stuck in rebuild in every category except the one that matters: goals.

Sure, the Maple Leafs out-attempted the Anaheim Ducks 104-44, outshot them 57-28, and out-chanced them in the high-danger areas 22-9.

But until Tavares finally solved Dostal late in the third period, it felt like the 23-year-old wasn’t going to hop in the getaway car with only a new Ducks franchise record (which he did: 55 saves) but a rare victory for the home side as well.

Even Toronto’s Martin Jones had to tip his cap to the dialed-in youngster: “That was pretty impressive. Fun to watch, honestly.”

Particularly toward the end of the second period, Keefe noticed irritation begin to seep into his bench. Perhaps a younger version of this group would’ve lost its structure or given into defeat.

The message: Keep firing.

“We just talked about not getting frustrated,” Tavares said. “There’s a lot of belief in this locker-room with the type of players we have, and the team game we play, that eventually we’ll find a way to break through. So, you just keep playing right to the end.”

Added ex-Duck Simon Benoit: “We knew it was going to come at one point.”

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Anaheim clung to its 1-0 lead like a smartphone at two per-cent battery life, as the Maple Leafs kept rolling in waves.

Eventually, the dam broke.

Tavares threw the final straw at Dostal, tying the game 1-1.

And once Toronto extended its streak of not getting shut out to 199 games — the longest active such run in the NHL — the rest was predictable.

Of all the Leafs peppering Dostal, Matthews was by far the most persistent.

Still, it took the Rocket Richard leader 13(!) shots and 20(!) attempts to finally find the net for his 30th on the season and snipe the overtime winner in a 2-1 victory.

Think he was due?

“He’s due every night, I think. The amount of looks he gets and obviously just how elite of a player he is and how he’s always able to find space and create opportunities for himself,” Tavares said.

“We know he can score from anywhere. Good to see him get it.”

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Keefe was thrilled to see Matthews freeze the clock and dodge one of those nights — “He’s found another level in the last month or so,” Keefe said — but the coach was equally happy to witness a third consecutive game in which the Leafs did not allow a 5-on-5 goal.

That defensive streak extends to 186:14.

Keep that up, and sooner or later, his game-breakers will bust through.

“Took a lot longer than we’d like,” Keefe said, “but I was thrilled to see the guys get rewarded.”

The Maple Leafs will soak in some California sun Thursday, practise in the greater L.A. area Friday, then fly to San Jose for Saturday’s road trip finale and a chance to swipe all six points in the Golden State.

“I think it’s a well-deserved day off tomorrow,” said Matthews, after wiping away the sweat.

Surprisingly, his arms were still attached to his shoulders.

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Fox’s Fast Five

• I don’t mind the Leafs’ decision to give Jones the call on both ends of a back-to-back over prospect Dennis Hildeby. He had a relatively easy night Tuesday against the Kings and was solid in snuffing out Toronto’s three-game losing skid.

Further, gathering wins against the league’s rebuilding teams, like the Ducks, has been an issue with the Leafs’ skaters.

“It’s definitely been an ongoing conversation,” Keefe said. “I guess you could connect that to the goaltending situation, right? It’s hard for us to have that conversation on one end and on the other side go with a goalie that has ever played in the league when we got another guy coming off a shutout.”

• Never excited to rip the refs, but Bobby McMann’s shoulder check of Pavel Mintyukov wasn’t worthy of a five-minute boarding major:

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Toss in the fight he didn’t pick and the 10-minute misconduct, and McMann was dealt 20 minutes in penalties on the sequence.

“There’s no intent there. Bobby’s just finishing his check,” Keefe said.

• Nick Robertson skated just 8:39 Tuesday in L.A. and was healthy-scratched Wednesday in favour of Pontus Holmberg, whom Keefe liked in Saturday’s loss to Carolina.

If Keefe had one qualm with his team’s 3-0 blanking of the Kings, it was the performance of Max Domi’s third line. Hence, the benching of Robertson.

The coach has been speaking with Robertson about protecting the puck under pressure. He has no issues with his third line’s ability to create in the O-zone; it’s about effectively managing the puck in the D-zone and transitioning cleanly through the neutral zone to start an attack.

“It’s really important to manage those situations well,” Keefe said. “That’s the next step for Nick.”

• Expect Matthews to be named this week as the Maple Leafs’ All-Star Game representative. William Nylander, at minimum, should join him later.

“With it being in Toronto, it’s a special event,” Matthews said. “So, I definitely don’t take it for granted. I’m sure we got a lot of guys deserving to go.”

• Keefe on Hildeby: “We expect we’re going to need him at some point.”

Toronto’s next back-to-back arrives Jan. 13-14 at home to Colorado and Detroit.

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