Auston Matthews scored three times and tied a Toronto Maple Leafs franchise record with 54 goals in a single season on Monday in a 6-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.
The 24-year-old centre has at least one goal in 12 of the last 13 games and 47 over the last 47. The hat trick, his third of the 2021-22 campaign, extended his league lead to four over Leon Draisaitl of Edmonton.
“It’s just crazy, I don’t even have words for it,” goaltender Jack Campbell, who had 32 saves, said. “We are blessed to have him on this team.”
Matthews has an opportunity to score for a record 55th time on Tuesday night in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers. Rick Vaive has held the previous record of 54 for 40 years.
“It’s humbling and it means a lot to me,” Matthews said.
Maple Leafs fans tossed hats onto the opposing team’s home ice after Matthews scored for the third time with 7:08 remaining. He also scored twice in the second period, both times on assists from Mitch Marner.
“I feel like a proud brother,” Marner, who had a goal and three assists, said. “He is going to break the record and it is going to be even better when he gets it.”
Toronto has now won five in a row and during the streak has victories over Florida, Boston and two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.
The Panthers leads the NHL’s Atlantic Division by seven points over the Maple Leafs, with the Bruins and Lightning tied for third only two points behind them.
The game amounted to a possible playoff preview and delivered all the excitement of a 60-minute ride in one of Florida’s thrill parks.
Early on the teams exchanged numerous dangerous chances, the goalies made spectacular saves, there were numerous angry scrums and the 266th consecutive sellout crowd here created an ear-splitting din by booing the visitors, yelling uncomplimentary things at the refs, banging drums and thunder sticks and possibly sharing Electro Who-Cardio Flooxes.
The Bolts Nation has high hopes for a third consecutive Stanley Cup but may have to go through Toronto in the first round to do it. The opponents came into the contest tied for second in the NHL’s Atlantic Division, tied for fifth in the overall league standings and had split the first two games between them during the 2021-22 campaign.
With 13 regular-season contests left, neither is likely to catch the first-place Panthers with Bruins the only other possible combatant for either to start the post-season. Toronto plays each of the three one more time, including Boston in the last game of the season.
It was Toronto’s first game in Tampa since Feb. 25, 2020, and its second of 15 games in April.
At this point Toronto and Tampa Bay look similar to one another. Through 69 games the Maple Leafs have been better in all offensive categories while the Lightning have had the advantage in goal with two-time Vezina Trophy-winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. Of course, one club has the pedigree of a champion while the other hasn’t even won a playoff series since 2004.
It didn’t look that way on an appropriately mild and breezy spring evening on the Sunshine State’s Gulf Coast. Six days after they thumped the Bruins in Boston, the Maple Leafs took the charge out of the Lightning.
Pierre Engvall netted a 30-foot wrist shot less than two minutes after the puck drop to put Toronto ahead. Nikita Kucherov then scored on a hard wrister directly off a faceoff win by Steven Stamkos to tie it at 1-1 with 13:36 left in the first.
Matthews scored his first of the night early in the second period, but then defenceman Jan Rutta evened things up again with 14:14 remaining before the second intermission.
Matthews then tapped one in from directly in front of Vasilevskiy to put Toronto ahead for good at 3-2 three minutes into the second period. Alexander Kerfoot added another with 7:35 to go in the second.
Matthews got his third of the game with 12:52 remaining in regulation time. Marner finished the scoring with 8:36 left.
Toronto now has a small foot up over Tampa Bay for the home-ice advantage should they meet in the opening round beginning the first week of May.
“We came on this trip excited about the opportunity,” Sheldon Keefe said. Toronto began the trip in Philadelphia and completes it in Dallas on Thursday. “These two back-to-back games have been light a flashing light on our schedule all season long.”
Toronto now has a very small foot up over Tampa Bay for the home-ice advantage should they meet in the opening round beginning the first week of May.
They meet once more, again in Tampa, on April 21.
Toronto is now 8-3 over its last 11 while Tampa Bay is 6-4-1. The Maple Leafs have won five in a row.
“This was a big game for us,” Matthews said. “They are a really good team and know how to win.
“It’s really positive. At this point in the season you want to generate momentum.”
Vasilevskiy came in at 35-14-4 with a .919 save percentage. He continues to lead the NHL in wins and is attempting to finish the regular season first or tied for first for wins for a fifth straight season.
On this night he stopped only 33 of 39 shots.
The Maple Leafs played without William Nylander, who missed the game with a non-COVID-19-related illness. Defenceman Jake Muzzin may return to the lineup on Tuesday against Florida. He has been out with a head injury since Feb. 21. As of Monday he has missed 20 games.
Most of the talk around the team now centres around Matthews, of course.
“Man, it’s fun to watch him,” Campbell said. “He leads by example every day. He’s like a role model. He’s quite a bit younger than me and I look up to him every day.”