May 21st, 2024

Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews finishes season just short of 70-goal mark

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on April 17, 2024.

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) loses the puck in front of Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) during the first period in Game 6 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series Saturday, April 29, 2023, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA, Fla. – Auston Matthews fired 12 shots on net and chimed another off the crossbar.

The Maple Leafs sniper desperately chasing history had another chance at a yawning cage blocked by a defender completely unaware the puck was headed his way.

Looking to become the first NHL player to score 70 goals in more than three decades, Matthews came up just short.

Toronto’s brightest star can now turn the page – and his attention – to the playoffs.

Matthews was held in check for the second straight night Wednesday in a 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, finishing the schedule with an eye-popping 69 goals in 81 games.

“I wanted it, for sure,” said the 26-year-old centre. “Just wasn’t meant to be.”

Matthews directed seven shots on target in the first period against Tampa Bay third-string goaltender Matt Tomkins in a game that meant nothing in the standings before unsuspecting Lightning defenceman Emil Lilleberg got in the way of another golden opportunity in the second.

Matthews then rang one off the iron with Tomkins at his mercy.

“A phenomenal, historic season,” Leafs winger Tyler Bertuzzi said. “We tried everything we could.

“He was giving his all and it just came up a little short.”

Matthews was aiming to become just the ninth player to reach the 70-goal plateau alongside Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito, Teemu Selanne, Alexander Mogilny, Jari Kurri and Bernie Nicholls.

Selanne and Mogilny are the last two players to hit that high-water when both grabbed 76 in 1992-93.

Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe pulled Matthews off the ice with roughly 34 seconds left in regulation – matching his No. 34 jersey – before sharing a quiet moment on the bench after Leafs defenceman T.J. Brodie fired home the team’s fourth goal with its best player looking for a tip in front.

“He’s played so tremendously well,” Keefe said. “There’s been a lot of focus on the pursuit of 70 goals, but in that you lose sight of just how well he’s played.

“It’s been fun to watch.”

Another significant milestone was eclipsed Wednesday when Lightning star Nikita Kucherov became just the fifth NHLer to pick up 100 assists in a campaign. He joins Gretzky, Lemieux, Bobby Orr and Connor McDavid, who registered his 100th assist on Monday.

“Special player,” Matthews said. “Really admire how every year he just seems to get better and better.”

Wednesday’s game – the regular-season finale for both teams – had little bite after the Atlantic Division playoff matchups were set the previous night. Toronto will face Boston, while Tampa meets cross-state rival Florida.

“We look forward, you turn the page,” Matthews said. “The most important thing is the team and the team’s success, and making sure that I’m pulling my weight.

“Especially as we go into the post-season.”

Already a two-time Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goal-scorer heading into this season, Matthews has taken his game to new heights.

“What a year,” Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano said. “What an incredible year to watch live.”

Heading into Wednesday, the Scottsdale, Ariz., product had already matched Mario Lemieux’s 69-goal campaign in 1995-96 after previously topping Alex Ovechkin’s 65 in 2007-08. McDavid scored 64 goals last season, while David Pastrnak had 61.

Gretzky scored 70 or more four times in his career – including a record 92 in 1981-82 – while Hull (three) and Lemieux (two) are the only other players to hit the mark multiple times.

“The way he’s played these last two games, give him those types of chances and those types of shots and he might have got 75,” Keefe said of Matthews.

“Unbelievable season.”

The 69-goal accomplishment now sits alongside Darryl Sittler’s record-setting 10-point game in 1976 in Leafs lore.

“Just a matter of bad luck here at the end not to actually get to the No. 70,” Giordano said. “But what an incredible year. It’s been a treat to watch.”

Matthews passed Dave Keon for third all-time in franchise history when he scored his 366th career goal against the New Jersey Devils last week before adding another later in the game.

He then scored his 69th of 2023-24 on Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings before directing 24 pucks on goal in search of No. 70.

Matthews, who had 16 shot attempts Wednesday, registered six hat tricks in 2023-24 after putting up seven combined over his first seven NHL campaigns.

“Found another level to his game,” Keefe said. “A little bit up and down here and there. To still finish with a season like that and numbers that he put up, pretty remarkable.

“Tremendous to be able to watch it “¦ 69 is pretty damn good.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

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