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Matthews has Maple Leafs on verge of first playoff series win since 2004

Center uses 200-foot game to put Bruins on brink

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Mike Babcock's voice cracked with emotion when he spoke about Auston Matthews on Friday. In the end, it almost sounded like a teacher who watched his prized pupil grow up in front of his very eyes.

"I thought he played great," the Toronto Maple Leafs coach said of his third-year center after a 2-1 win against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round. "I was impressed with him and proud of him. He should feel good about himself."

Twelve months earlier, Babcock sat at the podium at TD Garden and fielded questions asking why Matthews had two points in a seven-game, first-round loss.


[RELATED: Complete Bruins vs. Maple Leafs series coverage]


What a difference a year makes.

Matthews did not score a point in the first two games of this series, extending his postseason slump against Boston to two points in nine games. But something has suddenly clicked inside Matthews, and he's turning into a force that has the Maple Leafs on the verge of winning   a Stanley Cup Playoff Series for the first time since 2004.

Game 6 in the best-of-7 series is at Scotiabank Arena on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Matthews gave Toronto a 1-0 lead at 11:33 of the third period with his fourth goal in the past three games. Kasperi Kapanen put Toronto up 2-0 2:12 later before David Krejci brought the Bruins within 2-1 in the final minute with goalie Tuukka Rask on the bench for an extra attacker.

Video: TOR@BOS, Gm5: Matthews buries feed from Muzzin

Babcock's praise of Matthews stemmed from his increasing maturity as an all-around player, something the coach has been preaching to him for three seasons, since he was the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. Matthews was as effective in his end as he was in the offensive zone, breaking up Boston line rushes and starting fast breaks all game.

"I thought tonight, in particular, was his best [200-foot game] of the playoffs," Babcock said. "He was outstanding. He was involved in so many breakouts. He was there and available for the [defensemen]."

Babcock said learning to play in your end is a skill that does not come naturally to many elite offensive players like Matthews.

"People just think because you're a good player you know how to do that," Babcock said. "You don't know how to do that because you don't have to do that when you're a kid. You have to learn how to do it."

Video: Matthews heating up in past three games vs. Bruins

Babcock and Matthews have not always seen eye to eye, whether it was over linemates, ice time or style of play. The coach visited the 21-year-old at his Arizona home last offseason; they had a discussion Babcock described at the time as "productive."

Matthews seems to have bought what the coach is selling and is poised to take the next step in his game, much like his team. By concentrating more on defense, he has started to notice tangible results on the score sheet.

"I think that's been huge for me," Matthews said. "Tonight I thought all five guys, we were working as a five-man unit, breaking out clean. Just be in a good spot for the [defensemen] and communicating. That's the biggest thing, letting them know you're there and you're in a spot where they can get you the puck.

"I know for myself, I want the puck as much as possible. If you're in a good position and getting it and moving it, it gets us all going and we're playing in the offensive zone."

The next stage of the learning curve for Matthews and his teammates is to finish off the Bruins on Sunday. Returning to Boston for Game 7 on Tuesday is a something they want to avoid.

"Obviously, the hardest game to win is the fourth game to put the other team out, especially a proud group of guys," Babcock said. "It is something that we haven't been able to do in the last three years. I don't think we even should've been in the playoffs two or three years ago, but we got there. Now it is the process of learning how to do this. That is all a part of growing the group.

"It's not easy, as you can see in the League. It's not easy. We will get prepared to really push."

A push that Matthews appears ready to lead.

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