Auston Matthews ‘wanted’ 70 goals but his season should still be celebrated

TAMPA, Fla. — Auston Matthews exhaled audibly, letting evident frustration out for a group of reporters and by extension the hockey world to hear, before cracking a smile. He quickly came to terms with that frustration in a way only a mature great of the game could.

It was just minutes after Matthews’ regular season had ended and he could confidently celebrate winning his third Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s leading goal scorer. In some alternate universe, the moment would have called for positive reflection, or maybe even celebration.

But all Matthews was being asked about and thus all he could likely think about was falling short of becoming the ninth player in NHL history to score 70 goals in a season.

The Leafs centre’s goal tally would finish at 69. Impressive for the best goal scorer in the game right now, when zooming out? Absolutely. But undoubtedly disappointing all the same considering the efforts of both him and his entire team to try to get him to 70 in the Leafs’ final game of the season.

“I wanted it, for sure,” Matthews said, his smile emerging, of 70 goals. “But it just wasn’t meant to be.”

There was other stuff that happened in a strange and ultimately meaningless 6-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, by the way. The Leafs were outworked in almost every aspect of the game by the Lightning, giving up at least five goals for the fourth game in a row. Pontus Holmberg scored a nifty goal that served as a reminder of the offence he can bring should he nab a spot in the playoff lineup. The Leafs’ fourth line combined for five points. Heck, there was even a Cade Webber sighting with the team as his signing as a free agent appears imminent.

But none of that mattered the way trying to get Matthews his 70th goal did.

“I couldn’t tell you the score in any of those games, including the one that just finished,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said when asked about his concern level having lost four games in a row heading into the playoffs.

The entire focus in Game 82 was pushing the best Leafs player of all time into vaunted territory.

All game, as Matthews’ parents Brian and Ema watched eagerly from the stands, their son’s linemates made concerted efforts to look for him in the offensive zone.

“Maybe a little bit,” linemate Tyler Bertuzzi said when asked if there were conversations about trying to feed Matthews. “But everyone knows, that’s the guy you’re looking for. You could see at the end, everyone was trying to get him the puck as much as possible, no matter where he was.”

In the third period, T.J. Brodie broke a 111-game goal drought, the longest active goalless run in the NHL, by firing a point shot past Matthews and into the Lightning net. As much as Brodie was probably happy to toss the monkey off his back and into the cheap seats, would he have preferred Matthews had tipped the puck into the net instead?

“100 percent,” Brodie said.

Teammates understood the mission in Amalie Arena: help their boy get that goal.

“You could see it tonight. (The Lightning) knew we were trying to set (Matthews) up. And he still had a ton of looks,” Brodie said.

Keefe even pulled Leafs goalie Martin Jones while down three goals late in the third to get the extra skater. In doing so, he allowed Matthews an extraordinarily long shift: two minutes and 35 seconds.

Even when John Tavares scored on that shift with Matthews in front of the net, the Leafs captain’s celebration was decidedly muted.

When Matthews returned to the bench, he and Keefe shared a moment; with 34 seconds remaining on the clock, Keefe spoke pointedly and proudly as he patted Matthews on the back multiple times.

“For a regular season to come to an end like that, he’s played so tremendously well. I know obviously there’s been a lot of focus on the pursuit of 70 goals. But in that you kind of lose sight of just how well he’s played. He’s playing well, feeling well. And it’s been fun to watch,” Keefe said.

For his own part, Matthews fired 12 (!) shots on goal and had 16 shot attempts. His best chance came in the third period, directly in front of Lightning goalie Matt Tomkins as he came up from being down on one knee with the puck and fired a shot off the crossbar.

So, so close.

“It’s been fun,” Keefe said of watching Matthews chase 70 goals. “Obviously (it) makes my job easier in some senses. In some ways makes it harder. I’m trying to manage his minutes and manage the team and such, but also trying to help him, help the cause and all that kind of stuff through this last little bit.”

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The Maple Leafs went out of their way to try to get Matthews his milestone goal on Wednesday. (Kim Klement Neitzel / USA Today)

So while every member of the organization was pulling for Matthews, from the outside, his goal scoring run this season deserves to be celebrated in part because of how he handled it. It never felt like the chase wore heavy on the team, or as if Matthews himself was pushing the heaviest of rocks up the hill. Matthews’ chase became enthralling theatre, watching him circle through the neutral and offensive zones like a shark about to feed on its prey. Matthews was always hungry for more goals, and the exuberance he showed when he scored his 60th goal was a reminder of how much joy finding the back of the net brought him and his teammates.

Outside of the team, the chatter about the Leafs is always about how they’ll be judged on what they do in the postseason. Matthews’ goal scoring run was a reminder of how the regular season still matters to players and to the team.

Matthews is only 26, safely in his prime, and could very well push for 70 (or more!) again next season and beyond.

But the game is strange, and unpredictable things happen every season. And so while it was happening, Matthews’ season deserves to be placed among the pantheon of historic seasons by a Toronto-based athlete and also among the great single seasons in the NHL’s post-expansion era.

Matthews’ 69-goal season is even more impressive when you consider that the average NHL team scored 3.11 goals per game heading into Wednesday night’s games. Every season in which a player has scored 70 goals has featured an average goals per game higher than that tally.

So, yeah. It’s difficult to score so consistently in the NHL!

But Matthews did, and that’s why he smiled more often than not when assessing his season.

“For myself individually, I want to take another step,” Matthews said of his season.

You could forgive Matthews had he addressed his chase with that aforementioned frustration. The greats are wired differently and are relentless in their singular pursuit of success.

But instead, when Matthews spoke postgame he showed no signs of pettiness or anger.

“He’s just a pro,” Brodie said of Matthews. “He stays pretty even keel.”

Back arched and forward-thinking, Matthews sounded more and more like the unquestioned leader of this Leafs team he’s destined to be.

“For myself, as we look forward, you turn the page. The most important thing is the team and the team success and making sure that I’m pulling my weight,” Matthews said.

There’s no doubt he did just that with a Hart Trophy-calibre regular season.

To some, what Matthews achieves in the playoffs will define his 2023-24 season.

At least within the Leafs themselves, it might not. Matthews’ teammates had a front-row seat to one of the best single seasons in recent memory and if they could, they probably would have wanted to be munching on popcorn and sitting back in amazement watching him score goals like the rest of the hockey world.

“What an incredible year to watch live,” Mark Giordano said of Matthews’ season.

But if Matthews has his way, there will be more goals to come.

Yes, getting 70 goals mattered to him. Yes, he was disappointed, but only slightly, that he didn’t hit that tally.

And yes, he believes he can still keep finding the back of the net against the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs beginning Saturday. To him, pulling his weight means “doing what I can as a leader on this team, individually to help the team win especially as we go into the postseason.”

“That’s where my mindset has been all year,” Matthews said.

(Photo: Mike Carlson / Getty Images)

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