TORONTO – Auston Matthews looked skyward after one missed chance. He leaned over on his stick following another close call.
The Toronto Maple Leafs sniper had plenty of good looks Thursday.
And as the game wore on, the sense of anticipation inside Scotiabank Arena rose each and every time Matthews – poised to become the first member of the organization to score 50 goals in nearly three decades – had the puck on his stick.
With his team up 5-3 late in the third period, the 24-year-old watched teammate David Kampf hit the post with Winnipeg goalie Eric Comrie on the bench for an extra attacker.
Matthews’ shot at reaching the half-century mark in front of the home crowd was still alive.
He didn’t miss with his final effort moments later.
Toronto’s star attraction scored his NHL-topping 50th goal of the season into an empty net as the Leafs defeated the Jets 7-3 on a milestone night.
“I don’t know if I ever really envisioned it being an empty-netter goal, but I’ll take it,” said Matthews, who made history with 2:06 left in regulation. “I had some good chances tonight, just didn’t go in.
“Fortunately that last one did.”
The No. 1 pick at the 2016 NHL draft, who also had an assist Thursday, is the first Leaf to bag 50 goals since Dave Andreychuk scored 53 in 1993-94. He’s also just the fourth player in franchise history to do so, joining Rick Vaive (three times) and Gary Leeman.
Matthews accomplished the feat in a club-record 62 games. Next up will be Andreychuk’s Toronto high-water mark for goals, while 60 isn’t out of the question with 15 contests left on the schedule.
“Really special to be able to do it here in front of all the fans,” said Matthews, whose team hits the road for four straight starting Saturday in Philadelphia. “The energy, the atmosphere and all that goes into it just makes it much more fun.”
William Nylander added two on the power play to go along with an assist and Ilya Mikheyev had a short-handed goal as part of the first three-point performance of his career.
Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren, with a goal and an assist each, and John Tavares also scored for Toronto (43-19-5), which got 20 saves from Erik Kallgren. Mitch Marner chipped in three assists.
But the night belonged to Matthews.
“To have that accomplishment here on home ice is great,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said before adding with a smirk: “Maybe the best play of the day is David Kampf hitting the post.”
Nikolaj Ehlers, with a goal and an assist, Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny replied for Winnipeg (33-26-10). Comrie stopped 31 shots for the Jets, who are desperate for points in the chase for a Western Conference wild-card berth.
“We need to win games,” Ehlers said after Winnipeg blew an early 2-0 lead. “Besides playoffs, this is the toughest time of the year.”
Acquired from the Seattle Kraken prior to the trade deadline, Giordano was a member of the Calgary Flames when Jarome Iginla scored 55 goals in 2006-07.
“Pretty cool when they hit those milestones,” said the 38-year-old defenceman.
Nylander, meanwhile, recalled being a kid when his dad, Michael, was playing for the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin cracked 50.
“Brought back some memories,” he said. “Incredible and well-deserved.”
Matthews got a water-bottle shower when he entered Toronto’s locker room as the Leafs celebrated around their offensive catalyst.
“Pretty soaked,” Matthews said. “But it’s awesome, just the love and support from all these guys.”
The Leafs were coming off key victories over the Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins in the race for Atlantic Division playoff seeding, while the Jets picked up a crucial 3-2 shootout victory against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday.
Kallgren got the start with Petr Mrazek likely out at least six weeks with his third groin injury of the season suffered in Tuesday’s victory over Boston. No. 1 goalie Jack Campbell (rib ailment) has been cleared medically to resume action for the first time since March 8.
Trailing 2-1 after the first, Toronto tied things up early in second when Nylander banged a Matthews rebound off the end boards past Comrie for his 25th goal of the season.
Ehlers then wired his 21st – and seventh in 10 games – home on a Winnipeg power play.
But the Leafs got back even at 3-3 just 23 seconds later when Tavares swatted his 23rd past Comrie, who got the start in place of Connor Hellebuyck.
Nylander poked home his 26th of the yearon another man advantage as the Toronto’s top-ranked power play connected again.
Mikheyev made it 5-3 when took a pass from Pierre Engvall with the Leafs killing a penalty, settled the puck on his stick and fired his 15th upstairs for his team’s league-leading 11th short-handed goal.
Matthews, who had 13 shot attempts on the evening, then pressed for No. 50 in the third, but couldn’t find a way through until Comrie was on the bench for an extra an attacker.
“When you see him getting a dangerous chance, you’re like, ‘OK this could be 50 real quick,'” Nylander said. “He did a great job of not really thinking about too much and just kept playing.”
Matthews was twice robbed of 50 goals by COVID-19.
He had found the back of the net 47 times in 70 games in 2019-20 when the pandemic abruptly ended the regular season before putting up 41 in 52 contests over the course the 2020-21 coronavirus-shortened campaign to win his first Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer.
Matthews ran away in the overall goal title last season, but things are much tighter this time around with Edmonton Oilers star Leon Draisaitl scoring eight in his last five contests to hit 49.
Thursday was Matthews’ 62nd game of the season – he missed three because of injury and two via suspension – while Draisaitl has suited up for each of Edmonton’s 68 contests.
Keefe was asked if his best player now ranks among the Leafs’ all-time greats?
“He was there long before tonight,” the coach replied. “But this certainly helps in terms of the record books.
“This won’t be the last time we have an opportunity to talk about him doing something special.”
Matthews, meanwhile, said he does his best to avoid those thoughts creeping into his mind.
“I just try to stay present,” he added. “Maybe when I’m done playing I can think about that stuff, but right now I have a job to do.
“And it’s not finished yet.”
Not by a long shot.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2022.
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