How Toronto Maple Leafs will treat Auston Matthews’ chase for 70 goals

How Toronto Maple Leafs will treat Auston Matthews’ chase for 70 goals

TORONTO — Ilya Samsonov says his “small dream” for Auston Matthews is to see the sniper score 70 goals.

Ryan Reaves says, heck, don’t rule out 80.

“Watching history, obviously,” says Jake McCabe. “And we still got [eight]games left.”

Eight goals in eight games would give Matthews (62 and counting) a nice, fat, round number that hasn’t been touched in more than 30 years. But it’s one that has been floating in the ether as a this magical target since before Christmas.

Matthews won’t explicitly say he wants 70.

Not with words, anyway. Maybe with body language, though.

For anyone who caught the sniper’s jubilant celebration over No. 60 in Buffalo Saturday will attest that big stats matter to Big Papi.

The fans want it.

Moreover, Matthews’ Toronto Maple Leafs teammates want it for him.

“There’s some excitement there for Auston and the year he’s had, but I don’t think it’s overdone or anything like that,” coach Sheldon Keefe said Wednesday morning, ahead of a divisional test against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“You can see guys looking for him on the ice. But it’s generally not a bad idea to look for him. So, you’ve got to recognize that’s gonna be part of the deal. But you don’t want to change your game or change the focus. And that’s not the focus for me.

“I talked to Auston, and that’s not the focus for him. He wants to finish the season strong; he wants to be feeling good; he wants to have energy through this last stretch and going into the playoffs. And that’s really the goal for our team –– to have our game in order and be as healthy and rested as possible as we finish this last push.”

Healthy is the operative word in Keefe’s answer, and the top priority for an organization that is exercising extreme caution in bringing injured regulars Morgan Rielly (Wednesday), Mitch Marner (Saturday, perhaps?), Joel Edmundson (next week?), Calle Järnkrok and Timothy Liljegren (hopefully before season’s end) back into the lineup before the puck drops on Round 1.

Keefe acknowledges there is a fine line between keeping Matthews’ historic pace alive, getting a slumping power play in sync, and still providing the club’s MVP with suitable rest for what matters.

“And we’ll walk that. I’m not concerned about 70 goals –– at all. I’m concerned about having him and our team ready to go for playoffs,” Keefe said.

“Auston’s minutes have been in a really good place. And that’s important for me; I’m monitoring that. So, it’s a balance of rest but also staying sharp and keeping guys in game mode. That’s really important, too, because playoffs are hard and difficult. Emotions are high. And you don’t want to slip too far the other way of having to climb your way back out of that.”

Matthews was a workhorse in October, averaging 22:07 per night. Five of his past seven ice times have clocked in south of the 20-minute mark, though.

Recent history tells us that once a playoff position is secured –– Toronto can clinch its eighth straight with a single standings point –– Keefe won’t hesitate to pull the “load management” lever. (Marner memorably missed two games in 2022-23 and finished stuck at 99 points.)

Steven Stamkos needed goals in both Game 81 and Game 82 of the 2011-12 season to reach his sweet 60 –– with no time to spare and no days off.

“If he’s chasing 70, yeah, it’s tough. I remember for me anyways, scoring 59 in the 81st game. And then the last game of the year, if you’re stuck on that one number, it’s tough,” Stamkos said.

“But listen, at the end of the day, I think I know where their heads are at in terms of, you want to win the Stanley Cup. And if you have to rest certain players down the stretch, then that’s the main priority. So, I think for a guy like Auston, he probably has that same mindset.”

Stamkos says it’s no surprise that Matthews –– “for sure the premier goal scorer in the league right now” –– has two 60-goal campaigns, something neither he nor Alex Ovechkin have achieved.

The Lightning captain is one of just four active NHLers who know the feeling of 60-plus.

“When you’re in it, it doesn’t feel difficult –– because it feels like you’re scoring every night. It’s just supreme confidence when you have the puck, especially in certain areas. Obviously, you need some breaks to go your way. But it really is a feeling that you wish you could bottle and have every night, right?” Stamkos recalls.

“When the puck’s going in, you’re coming in each game feeling like you’re gonna get one. And I remember going two, three games without a goal, it felt like the end of the world.”

From now till Toronto’s regular-season finale on April 17 in Tampa, every Matthews goal is significant. Each lit lamp signals a new Maple Leafs franchise record.

A 65th would trump Connor McDavid‘s best. A 66th would elevate him over Ovechkin’s most prolific season and give him the greatest single goal-scoring season of any active shooter.

“I’m soaking it in. I’ve had better seats than anybody, so it’s been fun to watch. I’ve never played with a guy that can score like that and put the puck where he can,” Reaves says.

“I’m really proud of him for pulling it off. See if he can get 70 now.” “

Funny that the Leafs and Lightning will cross paths twice during the chase, considering Tampa coach Jon Cooper may have been the first to claim that 70 was within Matthews’ reach, back in 2022.

Now Tampa’s coach uses Matthews as an example when teaching his 13-year-old son how to rip a wrister.

“He’s gifted. And on top of that, he’s a helluva guy. So, I like watching that guy play. Hopefully for 60 minutes tonight he doesn’t do the things he does most of the time he plays this game,” Cooper said Wednesday.

“Wayne Gretzky is the greatest scorer of all time. In our generation here, in the last few years, Alex Ovechkin has been the guy. And then when you pair the numbers up of Auston and Ovi, when you think Ovi’s an untouchable, Auston’s pretty much not only touched him, but he’s done better than he has in certain times.

“So, you’re talking the elite of the elite, some of the most gifted that ever played the game. He’s not a kid anymore. He’s actually done it for quite some time. And so, it’s pretty impressive.”

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