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Auston Matthews focused on playoffs, not Calder Trophy

Maple Leafs rookie honored to be nominated for award, has sights on defeating Capitals in first round

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON --  Toronto Maple Leafs rookie center Auston Matthews' main concern is focusing on Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports 2, CSN-DC).

But he did take a moment to appreciate that he was named Thursday as one of the finalists for the Calder Trophy along with Winnipeg Jets right wing Patrik Laine and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski.

The winner will be announced at the 2017 NHL Awards at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on June 21 (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN).

 

[RELATED: Complete guide to NHL Trophies and all-time winners]

 

"Yeah, it was pretty special," Matthews said after the Maple Leafs morning skate Friday. "It was a big honor to find that out [Thursday]. A lot of really good rookies in this class this year and just to be named as one of the top three is a pretty big honor."

Matthews, the first pick of the 2016 NHL Draft, tied for second in the League with 40 goals, and led rookies in goals, points (69) and shots on goal (279). The 19-year-old Scottsdale, Arizona, native was a force from the start of the season, scoring four goals in his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12.

He went on to become the first rookie to score 40 goals in a season since Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals scored 52 in 2005-06. He also set Maple Leafs rookie records for goals, breaking Wendel Clark's mark of 34 in 1985-86, and points, surpassing Peter Ihnacak's total of 66 in 1982-83.

"It's a pretty cool thing for him," Maple Leafs left wing James van Riemsdyk said of Matthews being a Calder finalist. "With the year that he had, it's no surprise. He pretty much stepped seamlessly into the League, started to make his mark in pretty much his first or second shift he had."

That's continued in Matthews' first experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After being held off the scoresheet in the first two games against the Capitals, he has two goals and an assist in the past two games and is one of the main reasons the underdog Maple Leafs are tied 2-2 in the best-of-7 series.

 

[RELATED: Complete Capitals-Maple Leafs series coverage]

 

His first playoff goal started the Maple Leafs' comeback from an early two-goal deficit in a 4-3 overtime win in Game 3. Matthews scored again in Game 4, but Toronto fell short in a 5-4 defeat.

"I think he just keeps getting better and better," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought he was outstanding for us last game. He played when the game was on the line and he pushed us back. To me, he's a 200-[foot player] with and without (the puck), and he's learned a lot this year. What I like about him is he's just steady and [does a] great assessment of himself. He doesn't get ahead of himself, evaluates himself good, takes ownership for what he does right and what he does wrong. Obviously he's got a bright future."

After feeling his way through the first two games, Matthews has looked more confident as the series has progressed and has adjusted to the speed, physicality and intensity of playoff hockey.

"Each game, myself personally, I feel like I've gotten better," he said. "You kind of get more comfortable each and every night to expect not too much space. It's pretty physical, a lot of 50-50 battles that you got to make sure you're winning. I think that's kind of been the key for us, for everybody, just trying to get better each game and [Game 5 is] a big one for us."

Although the Maple Leafs lost Game 4, they feel good about the position they are in against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals.

"I don't think too many people really expected us to at one point be leading the series and now have a tied series at Game 5," Matthews said. "Us in the locker room, we feel like we're in a pretty good position right now and this will be a pretty pivotal game tonight."

"I think if I would have told the guys at the start of the series we're going to be in a best two out of three they would have done cartwheels," Babcock said. "So here we are. Let's go. Teams are going home now, you can see, so pretty soon there's only eight and if you want to be one of them, you dig in."

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