The center can become the first Toronto Maple Leafs player in 75 years and the first US-born player in 24 years to lead the NHL in goals.
With four games remaining, the 23-year-old has scored 39 goals, an NHL-high, nine more than the Edmonton Oilers center. Connor McDavid, who has five games to go.
It’s a race which is even more remarkable given that Matthews suffered a nagging wrist injury that caused him to change the way he shoots and even the way he holds his stick.
“It’s been a tough season, a lot tougher than I think people think,” said Brian Matthews, Auston’s father. “There were times when he played he could barely hold his stick. We’ve tried all kinds of different buttons and everything. “
Matthews’ success this season is not only an indication of his ability to overcome adversity, but his commitment to trying to be the best player in the NHL, a player who has grown through changes. of physical condition and diet during the off-season.
“It’s not so much that you got knocked over, it’s what are you going to do, how are you going to get off the mat, how are you going to respond?” Brian said. “And Auston, I think, really took that to heart.
Rick Vaive, who holds the Maple Leafs’ single-season scoring record with 54 goals in 1981-82, said what’s most impressive with Matthews this season is how he has adapted his game to compensate. the injury.
“He’s found different ways to score, and that’s what great scorers do,” said Vaive. “I noticed when he first said he was really bothered by the wrist earlier in the season, he changed the game to compensate. He was going in front of the net and picking up rebounds and stuff, which is not the normal way. When he couldn’t rely on his incredible shot as much as usual, he found other ways to do it.
“The point is, you’ll never hear him say, ‘I would have scored more goals if I hadn’t had that bad wrist. There are times when players play because of injury and they just have to suck and go and do it. And we’ve obviously seen him do just that. “
No Maple Leafs player has led the NHL in goals since forward Gaye Stewart scored 37 in 1945-46. The last player born in the United States to do so was Keith Tkachuk, who scored 52 for the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996-97.
Tkachuk said Matthews shows diversity in the way he scores goals.
“If you’re a player like him who has a good shot that’s hampered by something like a wrist that’s not 100 percent,” Tkachuk said, “you’re going to put yourself in a position where the distance is more. short. score of. And even playing injured his shot is still better than most unnamed players Alex Ovechkin or David pastrnak.
“He’s an elite player as he has shown this year. With Ovechkin reaching the final stage of his career, Matthews will lead this league in goals for many years to come. “
In his five seasons in the NHL, the first pick in the 2016 NHL Draft has scored 348 points (197 goals, 151 assists) in 330 games. He scored 80 points last season, including 47 goals, one short of Rocket Trophy co-winners Richard Trophy Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins. He has scored 63 points this season.
He has scored one goal in his first four games this season, then scored 10 goals in his next eight games. After failing to score in his next two games, he scored seven more in his next four games and scored 18 goals, five more than McDavid, starting the Maple Leafs game against the Calgary Flames on the 24th. February.
After being seen in favor of his right wrist in that 2-1 win over Calgary, he missed the next two games. Since returning on March 3, he has scored 21 goals in 28 games, and after scoring in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, Matthews has scored 18 goals in his last 18 games.
Matthews said he had to find different ways to be effective on offense and all over the ice.
“I want to score, I want to produce and do these things,” Matthews said. “But I just tried to do the little things that help the team win and put the momentum back on our side. It’s more than scoring goals.
“Obviously that’s what I’m here to do, that’s what I want to do, but just playing that full 200-foot game, competing at night is all I can hope for. make. “
Video: TOR @ MTL: Matthews intercepts puck, buries wrist
An example of Matthews’ courage and raw talent was presented on April 28 in the opening period of Toronto’s 4-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens. As Toronto led 1-0, Matthews won a Nick Foligno pass that deviated from Montreal forward Nick Suzuki, hit the puck out for himself, and hit it into the net in the same swing.
“I just saw the puck and tried to put it on my stick,” he said. “It all happened very quickly. “
Toronto goalie Jack Campbell didn’t downplay the goal like Matthews, summing the game up in one word: “Wow”.
Thanks to games like this, the Maple Leafs have clinched a Stanley Cup playoff berth for the fifth straight season and are on course to win the Scotia North, seven-team division, with an eight-team lead. points on the Oilers.
But for Matthews, regular season accomplishments won’t matter if the Maple Leafs don’t make the playoffs.
From the moment Toronto was eliminated in five Stanley Cup Playoff games by the Columbus Blue Jackets in August, Matthews had a sour taste in his mouth. It was the fourth straight season the Maple Leafs failed to win a playoff round. His mandate has only grown stronger: to be better, no matter what, in 2020-2021.
Brian Matthews said his son’s state of mind of never being satisfied reminded him of the Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby.
“I look at a guy like Crosby,” Brian said. “He’s a beast. He works all the time to get better. You don’t see a drop for a guy who is playing level.
“Auston has the same kind of motivation. It has always been a part of him and it will always be a part of him. “
This is the type of workout that is breaking the ice when it comes to nutrition and conditioning.
“Auston is always looking for ways to improve and was looking for more flexibility and durability as his minutes increased,” said agent Judd Moldaver. “Ian Mack has been a great partner in solving this problem. “
Mack is a Chicago-based coach who works with NHL players such as Patrick Kane the Chicago Blackhawks and James van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers. A refined workout and diet regimen caused Matthews to lose 15 pounds, bringing him back to his stated weight of 220 pounds and feeling a lot more elusive.
“He looks like he’s really connected,” Mack said. “He’s on a mission of course, so it’s pretty fun to watch.
“Sometimes people get worried when you say you want to lose weight because they might lose strength, but it just wasn’t. He lost about 15 pounds, and he did it to get faster. , faster and can stay longer. This is exactly what I see. “
Matthews is averaging a career-high 21:44 in the NHL per game in his fifth season, up almost a minute from his 20:58 average last season. He is second among the Maple Leafs forwards in Mitchell Marner (22:26) and fifth among NHL forwards this season.
Mack said Matthews contacted him regularly to discuss the menu and workout schedule for the day ahead.
“We thought he had the opportunity to be the MVP of the League if he was lighter, so that’s cool to see,” Mack said. “Seeing him do that is great. “
Matthews was equally diligent in improving his game. During the offseason, he joined players like McDavid, the Minnesota Wild defenseman. Matt Dumba and Maple Leafs forward Alex Galchenyuk for the skates hosted by former NHL forward Shane Doan at a Phoenix-area rink in November.
Growing up in nearby Scottsdale, Matthews attended Coyotes games with his grandfather. Doan, who scored 972 points (402 goals, 570 assists) in 1,540 games with the Coyotes and Winnipeg Jets from 1995 to 2017, quickly became his favorite player.
Almost two decades later, Doan has become a fan of Matthews, especially after what he saw during practice sessions when players were discussing the possibility of the Maple Leafs forward scoring 50 goals during the coming season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone shoot the puck like him,” said Doan, who was later hired by the Coyotes as hockey development manager. “There is a coolness there, which I like. “
Doan said it was a lesson learned the hard way by former NHL goaltender Peter Budaj during practice.
“He hit Budaj in the head with a timer, I’d say from 25 feet away,” Doan said. “I thought he could have killed him. And Auston was like, ‘Sorry, Petey.’ On the other hand, Auston said, “It was only at the net.”
“That desire for composure to score every time you shoot him on the net like that, it translates. “
Matthews looked for a way to test his sleek physique once he arrived in Toronto after workouts in Arizona. He is expected to be quarantined for two weeks due to COVID-19 protocols in Ontario when he arrives in mid-December.
The solution was to rent a house that had its own adjacent rink. Once one was located, Matthews called on the Maple Leafs to attack William Nylander, who had trained in Sweden, to join him. Before Joe Thornton, who signed with the Maple Leafs on Oct. 16, and defensemen Rasmus Sandin and minor league defenseman Mac Hollowell also moved in, and all five had daily skates to hone their skills as they prepared for the season, which began in January.
“We had a great time,” Thornton said. “He’s such a special player. You could see even then that he was on a mission. “
Add it all up and it got Matthews to play the best hockey of his NHL career.
“You started to see how elite he was last season, but he’s taken the next step this season no matter what obstacles he’s faced,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares mentionned.
“He was amazing. “