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Auston Matthews focused on playoffs, not numbers

After setting Maple Leafs record for rookie goals, wants Toronto to clinch berth

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- Auston Matthews set the record for goals by a Toronto Maple Leafs rookie on Tuesday, his latest benchmark moment in a season when he has surpassed the expectations of many.

But it's hard to say whether Matthews, who has 35 goals, has exceeded his expectations. He said his objectives for the season were more team-focused than personal.

"I didn't really put any numbers in my head (at the start of the season), I just wanted to go and get better every day and have fun," Matthews said Wednesday, the day after breaking the record Wendel Clark set in 1985-86. "I think I've done that so far, it's been a fun season. I think as a team, we've gotten better each day and progressed over the course of the season and been on pace for what we've wanted to do. We've still got seven games left here and still have a job to do."

It is clear that Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, would trade personal accomplishments for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Toronto leads the Boston Bruins by one point for third place in the Atlantic Division with one game in hand, and the Tampa Bay Lightning by four points for the second wild card into the playoffs from Eastern Conference.

But there is no denying that Matthews' success is a big reason the Maple Leafs are in that position. What makes his accomplishments even more impressive is that the 19-year-old has not been playing alongside established veteran players. The center has spent the season on an all-rookie line with Zach Hyman on the left wing and either William Nylander or Connor Brown on his right side.

"They work hard, they compete hard and they're good players," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "Everyone's always pumped up about young guys, but in the end, you've got to be good guys, not just good young guys. That's how you win."

Video: FLA@TOR: Matthews buries 35th for Leafs rookie record

Matthews has made a habit of scoring goals from the slot, quickly taking a pass and shooting, like he did on his 35th goal in a 3-2 win against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday.

"He can just catch and release the puck so well," Brown said. "Just being able to gather the puck and shoot it all in one motion, you see a lot of guys score one-timer goals, but he doesn't do that as much as catch and release. That makes him so elite and easy to play with."

That Matthews made history with that goal did not surprise Clark, who said Tuesday he realized his record could be threatened when he saw Matthews score four goals on opening night.

Matthews became the first player in the modern era to score four times in his NHL debut, a 5-4 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12. He scored in overtime at the 2017 NHL Centennial Classic on Jan. 1, giving the Maple Leafs to a 5-4 win against the Detroit Red Wings.

His 35 goals make him the third rookie in the past 22 seasons to reach that mark, joining Alex Ovechkin (52 goals with the Washington Capitals) and Sidney Crosby (39 goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins) in 2005-06. Winnipeg Jets rookie Patrik Laine has 34 goals this season. Matthews has scored the first goal in a game 14 times, tying Dave Andreychuk's Maple Leafs record set in 1992-93. With 62 points (35 goals, 27 assists), Matthews is four from tying Peter Ihnacak's Toronto rookie record, set in 1982-83.

"I think he's exceeded what I thought he would do," Brown said of Matthews. "I know his skill level and everything, but coming into the League, it's so hard to contribute right away. The way he found himself immediately and the way he's been able to produce is really incredible."

Video: TOR@BUF: Matthews buries a wicked wrister up close

Matthews has long since put to rest any concerns about whether he could handle the pressure of being the No. 1 pick in Toronto.

"I don't get too worked up about that kind of stuff," Matthews said. "Just have fun, you're playing hockey in the NHL, it's something we've all dream of as kids. I don't think you put that sort of pressure on yourself. Obviously Toronto is a big market, but you just try to go out there and have fun and play hockey."

Clark said he has enjoyed watching Matthews and is more than thrilled to have had his record broken.

"It's good; if we're going to be any good, we need these young guys breaking all the stuff and doing well," Clark said. "He had a great start to the year and it's awesome he was able to get there."

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