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Auston Matthews leading Maple Leafs' playoff push

Rookie center up to 30 goals, has Toronto in win-now mode

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- By the end of the game, when Andrew Shaw scored the game-winner for the Montreal Canadiens at 1:06 of overtime, the two goals by Auston Matthews hardly mattered. They were easily forgotten, easily dismissed in the moment, even though they had gotten the young star to 30 goals on the season before the calendar turned to March.

No, the moment that counted had come not long before Shaw's goal, when Matthews burst out on an overtime breakaway that could have ended the game, ended a stretch of 14 consecutive games of futility for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Canadiens dating back to January 2014.

Instead, the shot by Matthews ticked off the stick of Carey Price for a miss that, 10 seconds later, would yield a 3-2 loss for the upstart Maple Leafs. It was that close for Toronto, that narrow, so slight the difference between winning and losing.

"Saw the open corner, and he just got a stick on it," Matthews said. "Tough bounce. I saw the opening, I shot it there, and he just got a knob on it."

Such was the disappointment in the Maple Leafs' locker room after the game. It was a loss, after all, and that is the normal result of a loss. But it was more than that. The Maple Leafs believe, and they believe that they can and should win these games, that they can and should be as good as the Canadiens, that they can and should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Video: MTL@TOR: Matthews tallies his 30th goal of the season

It is not hard to see why.

With the overtime loss, the Maple Leafs picked up a point at Air Canada Centre on Saturday, bringing their total this season to 69 in 61 games. That number is notable because last season, in a full 82-game season, they also had 69 points, and finished last in the Eastern Conference. Now, they sit third in the Atlantic Division, one point behind the Ottawa Senators (who have two games in hand), and five points behind the Canadiens.

That's why it is both remarkable and entirely unsurprising to hear coach Mike Babcock say matter-of-factly, of his Maple Leafs' upcoming West Coast road trip, "We expect to win."

Of course they do. That is who they are now.

"It's obviously a pretty frustrating loss for us," Matthews said. "I thought we did everything that we could to win the game and we just came up short. Obviously it's not the best feeling."

Still, Matthews did about all he could to give the Maple Leafs a chance through the first 60 minutes, scoring at 10:54 of the first period on a bouncing puck that was initially awarded to James van Riemsdyk as he skated toward the net, but which appeared not to touch van Riemsdyk in the end.

He got his second at 1:19 of the third period, after the Canadiens had taken a 2-1 lead in the second period, scoring on a tip off a pretty centering pass from Zach Hyman. It marked his milestone goal, a level that fellow rookie - and No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft - Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets reached with two goals against Toronto on Feb. 21.

As for those 30 goals, it wasn't something Babcock had thought about before Saturday. He knew how good Matthews was, especially after he burst onto the scene by scoring four goals in his NHL debut. But the coach didn't need a milestone to tell him what he had already grasped.

"I didn't think like that. I just thought, 'Let's make him better each and every day,'" Babcock said. "I knew he was an elite player. I never spent any time thinking about what his stats would be, just that he would help us win. That's what I like about him: He helps you win. He plays right. He's getting better every day. He's going to be our No. 1 center here, if he's not already, in no time. He'll be the guy who's driving our franchise."

Video: MTL@TOR: Matthews beats Price with bouncing puck

He is already. It is not a coincidence the Maple Leafs have gotten this good, this fast in Matthews' first season in the NHL. And while he couldn't quite win the game against the Canadiens, couldn't quite get that last goal to give him the hat trick and his team the win, he looks poised to do just that again and again.

And even though the Maple Leafs didn't win on Saturday, it's clear from the way they have played and their reaction after the game that winning hockey is back in Toronto.

"Those are the games that you dream about when you're a kid, playing in those games," Hyman said of the rivalry, the intensity, the competitiveness of the game against Montreal. "As you go along in the season, the games are tighter and you look at the standings and teams are so close. Every game matters."

The Maple Leafs are in the playoff race. They have 69 points, with 21 more games to add to that total, 21 more games to prove that they belong, ahead of schedule.

"I wouldn't say that's a small step, I'd say it's a huge step," Babcock said. "But the big step is we're getting to play in real hockey games that matter. The crowd's excited and their fans are excited and it's a good hockey game and a level that we couldn't play last year. We've just got to keep getting better."

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