Auston Matthews’ career year gives Maple Leafs playoff hope

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Auston Matthews is having the best season of his career, and that’s quite an achievement.

Toronto’s No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft lived up to the hype from the start of his rookie season until last season, averaging just over a point per game while turning around a long-suffering franchise.

Matthews led the Maple Leafs to the playoffs in each of his first five years in the league after being in the playoffs only once in the previous 11 years.

The proud franchise, however, hasn’t advanced to the playoffs since 2004, when Matthews was 6 years old. Toronto has played a deciding playoff game in the past four playoffs and has lost every playoff game.

“The scars that leave behind are the extra motivation, an extra little fire that burns inside to go out there and make a difference and have a different outcome,” Matthews said. “Everyone on the team, and everyone in this organization, has faith in each other and is extremely motivated to change the narrative and have playoff success.

“It’s about doing – not talking about it – and I know this group feels ready.”

It certainly helps the Maple Leafs to have a 24-year-old superstar, possibly in his prime, in the lead.

Matthews shattered his career high with 60 goals, hitting the milestone last week and breaking Rick Vaive’s 40-year-old franchise record. He had 106 points in 73 games and improved as a two-way player, making him a favorite to win his first Hart Trophy as an NHL MVP.

The Maple Leafs, not coincidentally, set franchise records for wins and points before their highly anticipated playoff appearance began Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“We were a good team last season and felt we made some positive moves in the offseason to add to our depth,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Our players are a year older, have come together and continued to develop their game to find greater consistency in their habits and execution. We have also seen significant improvements this season on the power play and penalty kill who helped us win a lot of matches.

Toronto has scored on a league-best 30% of its power plays after ranking 16th in the NHL last year. The Maple Leafs rank among the NHL’s shorthanded leaders after being among the worst a season ago.

Matthews isn’t often on the ice shorthanded, but he’s become a defensive enough forward to get votes for the Selke Award.

His goal tally put him in position to win his second consecutive Richard Trophy, lighting the most lights in the league, to join Steve Stamkos (2012) and Alex Ovechkin (2008) as the only 60-goal scorers this century. .

“Auston has been a prolific goalscorer since joining the league, so it’s no surprise that as he got older he raised the bar,” Keefe said earlier this week. “The off-season surgery (in mid-August) resolved the discomfort he had felt most of last season with his wrist, which helped him feel better and shoot with more confidence and of strength.”

Matthews has missed six games this season due to injury, including three last week with an undisclosed illness.

“It’s obviously not the best time of year to deal with something like this, but I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Toronto defenseman Justin Holl said.

Matthews, born in California and raised in Arizona, had an OK cast earlier in his NHL career and now has a whole group to skate with and stop shots.

Right-winger Mitch Marner, chosen by Toronto, fourth overall in 2015, a year before Matthews was selected, is having the best year of his career. Goaltender Jack Campbell, acquired at the 2020 trade deadline, allows less than three goals per game and has more than 30 wins for the first time in his seven-year career.

“I get to play with some really special players,” Matthews said. “Our chemistry has really grown a lot, and we’re really pushing each other to improve. And we’re having a lot of fun there too.

It was no fun for Matthews, or the Maple Leafs, to fall short in the first round of the last five playoffs.

On those first three early outings, Mike Babcock was their coach. This spring, the former team coach expects Matthews to help the Maple Leafs break into the playoffs.

“As good as he was in the past, he wasn’t the best player on the ice in the playoffs and now he’s going to be the best player in the series,” said Babcock, who was fired at the start of the season. 2019-2020 with a record 173-133-45. “He has reached majority, which takes time. It took seven years for Michael Jordan to win a championship.

“The dominant players on the team, Auston and Mitch, are as good as any player in the league. Going into these playoffs, they are men, not boys, and I expect them to be very successful.

AP Hockey writers Stephen Whyno and John Wawrow contributed.

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