Maurice Richard was the first. Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy did it nine times. Alex Ovechkin has done it eight. Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux on six occasions each. Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Brett Hull five.
On Thursday night, Auston Matthews became the latest player to join the rather exclusive club of NHLers who have rung up 50 goals in a season. With fans holding their breath in anticipation, he got it with a little more than two minutes left in the Maple Leafs’ 7-3 victory over the Winnipeg Jets at Scotiabank Arena.
It didn’t come on one of his blistering slapshots or mano-a-mano around the net. It occurred with the opposing goalie watching from the bench. The crowd, which had been chanting “We want 50,” was just as pleased as if it had been highlight-reel material.
“I didn’t envision it being an empty-netter,” Matthews said with a laugh. “I’ll take it anyway.”
With that, his name was etched into the pages of a history book of a franchise that has been around 105 years. He is only the fourth Toronto player to reach the milestone after Rick Vaive, Dave Andreychuk and Gary Leeman. Andreychuk was the last to accomplish it in 1993-94.
Vaive accomplished the feat for three straight years in the early 1980s and holds the all-time single-season record of 54, which will likely fall over the final 15 regular-season games of the current campaign.
Over the past two seasons, Matthews has scored 91 goals in 114 games, and 13 in the last dozen.
On Friday, a Las Vegas bookmaker, BetOnline, posted odds of 5 to 4 that he will win the Hart Trophy this year as the league’s most valuable player. Connor McDavid of Edmonton is next at 5 to 2.
Interestingly enough, the Maple Leafs are the third choice to win the Atlantic Division and only the fifth most likely to emerge as the champion of the Eastern Conference.
They begin a four-game road trip on Saturday in Philadelphia and then have more consequential engagements in Tampa on Monday, Sunrise, Fla., on Tuesday and Dallas on Thursday.
Florida, Tampa Bay and Toronto have been jostling atop the standings of the Atlantic Division all year.
“I’m not expecting things to change too much in a week,” Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs head coach, said on Friday.
Goalie Jack Campbell, who has been sidelined with a rib injury since March 8, will travel with the team and return to the lineup at some point during the trip.
Rookie Erik Kallgren will get the nod against the Flyers, however. He earned his fourth win amidst all the excitement on Thursday.
What Matthews has achieved in 2021-22 is remarkable. He reached 50 goals in 62 games, the fastest of anyone since 1995-96.
That year, Lemieux posted 50 in 50, Jaromir Jagr reached the 50 mark in 59, Alexander Mogilny did so in 60 and Peter Bondra got 50, like Matthews, in 62 games.
Had he not missed five games, including two because of a suspension, he would likely get 60. The way he has produced, it is still not entirely out of the question.
“This won’t be the last time we have an opportunity to talk about him doing something special,” Keefe said late Thursday.
Asked if the 50 goals qualifies Matthews as one of Toronto’s all-time greats, Keefe did not hesitate.
“He was there long before tonight,” the coach said.
With a little better luck, Matthews could have had 50 goals in three straight seasons now. The 24-year-old had 47 in 70 games in 2019-20 and 41 in 52 outings last year. Both campaigns were abbreviated by COVID-19.
He won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal-scorer in 2021 and is engaged in a battle with Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton this time around. The latter had 49 goals in fewer shot attempts as he headed into an encounter with the St. Louis Blues on Friday night.
Matthews has reached the point where fans anticipate a goal almost every time he handles a puck. That is impossible, of course, but he there is no question he has refined his game and has become more dangerous in the offensive zone.
“When you see him getting a dangerous chance, you’re like, ‘Okay, this could be 50 real quick,’” his teammate William Nylander said of Matthews’s quest on Thursday evening.
It wasn’t the first time Nylander had ever seen it happen. His father, Michael, was a member of the Washington Capitals in 2007-08 when Ovechkin reached 50 for the second time. (He ended up with 65.)
“I was young and there when Ovie got 50,” Nylander said. “This was unreal. It brought back memories.”