May 20th, 2024

Maple Leafs star Matthews soars towards rarefied air with 70-goal quest

By Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press on April 15, 2024.

Auston Matthews is on the verge of entering rarefied air in pursuit of 70 goals this season. Matthews (34) takes a shot during second-period NHL hockey action against the Detroit Red Wings, in Toronto, Saturday, April 13, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Auston Matthews is on the verge of entering rarefied air in pursuit of 70 goals this season.

Matthews is currently one goal shy of the mark, with his Toronto Maple Leafs having two games remaining on the regular-season schedule. Toronto plays the Florida Panthers on Tuesday and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, both on the road.

The 70-goal mark has been reached 14 times by eight different players, with three players having reached the threshold multiple times: Wayne Gretzky (four), Brett Hull (three), and Mario Lemieux (two).

“It’s a rare and special occurrence, so it has to obviously be considered among the best seasons in NHL history for scoring goals, that’s for sure,” author and hockey historian Andrew Podnieks said of Matthews’ campaign.

The NHL last had a 70-goal scorer in the 1992-93 season, with Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny each netting 76 goals. Phil Esposito (1970-71) – the first to ever accomplish the feat – Jari Kurri (1984-85) and Bernie Nicholls (1988-89) round out the list of 70-goal men.

Mogilny, from Russia, is the lone Asian, while Kurri and Selanne, both from Finland, were the only Europeans to do it. Matthews has a chance to become the first American-born player to do it.

Podnieks pointed to the different ways players such as Esposito, Gretzky and Hull scored compared to Matthews. With Esposito, it was his knack for scoring in the slot, with Gretzky it was his craftiness and dekes, and Hull was a force with the one-timer.

While others in recent memory, such as Alexander Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos, have used the one-timer to score many goals, they were right-handed shooters.

“What makes Matthews special or different is just the fact that he shoots left and he has perfected the one-timer from the other side,” Podnieks said. “So it’s an adjustment for goalies to have to make.”

While acknowledging the sentiment that today’s players are more skilled, shoot harder and skate faster than those of the past, Podnieks points to the difference in coaching.

“Everybody has a system, everybody has a style,” he said. “You have to be here when the puck is here. You have to do this. You have to do that.

“So all of these teams have these structures and if you talk to Gretzky or Esposito, they say there were no structures “¦ you went out as a line and you tried to put the puck in the net. And so when you have to play within these structures, I think the game becomes easier to defend.”

In Matthews’s case, he’s figured a way around that.

“So here comes a guy like Matthews who has sort of cracked that code a little bit maybe and sort of works a little bit outside of those structures or can beat the (defence) despite those structures,” Podnieks said.

“So I think there’s definitely something to be said for scoring 70. In this era, is it more difficult than 30 years ago? You can argue that it is because it hasn’t been done in 30 years.”

Considering Hockey Reference’s era-adjusted statistics – incorporating adjustments for schedule, roster size, and era (based on the league’s average goals per game at the time) – Matthews is tied for fourth all-time with 70 goals, while Hull leads the list with an adjusted 78 goals in 1990-91.

In contrast, Gretzky’s NHL record of 92 goals in 1981-82 receives an era-adjusted revision to 68 goals.

Heading into Monday’s games, Matthews held a sizable edge among NHL goal leaders, 14 ahead of Panthers forward Sam Reinhart.

His previous best mark was 60, which he accomplished in 2021-22. The star centre’s production that season earned him his first career Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP and his second straight Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the leading goal-scorer.

Matthews hit the 60-goal mark this season on March 30 in a 3-0 win over Buffalo. He became just the eighth player to record multiple 60-goal seasons and the first since Pavel Bure did so in 1992-93 and 1993-94 with the Vancouver Canucks.

Matthews also became the first American-born player to accomplish the feat.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2024.;

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