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Matthews hopes to continue 'pretty cool' goals race with Ovechkin

Maple Leafs center pursuing 50, vying with Capitals forward, Pastrnak of Bruins

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

Auston Matthews said it is an overwhelming compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence as Alex Ovechkin with the two among those vying for the NHL goals lead.

The Toronto Maple Leafs center was third with 47 goals, one behind Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals forward, and Boston Bruins forward David Pastrnak, when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

"It's pretty cool and humbling to be in the same conversation as a guy like him," Matthews said of Ovechkin on a conference call Thursday. "Being in a scoring race with a guy like him, a generational player, he's made a big impact on and beyond the game and kind of paved the way for a lot of players and a lot of guys. 

"… And hopefully when we get back to playing hockey, I think that's what everyone misses, everyone wants to do. Just want to go out there, compete, and do what they love to do the most."

There is no timetable for when the season might resume. If it does, Matthews, who is averaging 0.67 goals per game through 70 games, will have 12 games left to join Rick Vaive (54 in 1981-82; 52 in 1983-84; 51 in 1982-83), Dave Andreychuk (53 in 1993-94) and Gary Leeman (51 in 1989-90) as the only Maple Leafs players to score 50 in a season.

Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, a two-time 50-goal scorer in the NHL, told on March 26 that it's a matter of time before Matthews reaches that mark even if the season doesn't resume.

Ovechkin, who is eighth on the NHL goals list with 706 and has led the League in goals eight times, has scored at least 50 goals eight times in his 15 seasons. Matthews and Pastrnak each is attempting to reach the milestone for the first time; Matthews is in his fourth NHL season, Pastrnak his sixth.

Video: TBL@TOR: Marner sets up Matthews' power-play blast

Matthews said he paid attention to how Ovechkin and Pastrnak were doing on a nightly basis but that he hasn't dwelled on the scoring race since the pause, given the health crisis.

"It's obviously frustrating and disappointing the season is on pause," he said. "But I think when you think about those types of achievements or accomplishments and being close to 50 goals and things like that, it becomes kind of irrelevant when you are talking about people's lives around the world.

"Everybody would love to be playing hockey right now and kind of live their normal lives, but this thing is bigger than sports, it's bigger than a lot of things. The most important thing is be safe and try to stay as healthy as possible. But I look forward to being back on the ice and accomplishing some of those things.

"Of course you see when they score and whatever, but obviously there is unfinished business considering we all have 12 games left to play. Obviously there are close races for spots to get into the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs. There is pretty much unfinished business anywhere. Like I said, this is pretty much bigger than the sport."

Matthews said he is hopeful he'll get to resume the season with Toronto (36-25-9), which is in third place in the Atlantic Division in what the center called an inconsistent season.

"We need more of a killer instinct … our leaders have to be better," he said.

Matthews credits Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe for some of his success this season. He has scored 33 goals in 47 games (0.70 per game) since Keefe replaced Mike Babcock on Nov. 20; he had averaged 0.61 in 23 games under Babcock.

Matthews played an NHL career-high 27:05 in a 3-2 loss to the Dallas Stars on Feb. 13. He was frustrated at times about not playing more under Babcock and said his relationship with Keefe has been outstanding.

"His commitment has been amazing," he said. "… Everyone has been receptive of him and he's be receptive to everyone else. That's all you can ask for."

For now, Matthews is self-isolating in his Arizona home with teammate Frederik Andersen as his guest. He's been working on an already-dangerous shot, but not against the Maple Leafs goalie.

"I wouldn't do that to Freddie," he said with a laugh.

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