Auston Matthews seals record-breaking night for Maple Leafs in poetic fashion

DALLAS – Rick Vaive knows his record should have been broken twice already.

Auston Matthews was tracking 55 in 2019-20 when the pandemic stunted the NHL season. Had the Toronto Maple Leafs superstar been granted a full 82 games in 2020-21, he would’ve given 65 a fright.

Really, it was never a question about when Matthews would get enough goals. It was about when he would get enough games.

“We’ve talked about it at the Leafs gala a couple of times and at the Leafs and Legends golf tournament,” Vaive told us.

“I was very disappointed for him last year. The first few seasons he had good years, but he had injuries. All of a sudden, he’s there, and he’s got the opportunity in spring [of 2020] — and it’s not an injury that takes it away from him.

“If it’s just an injury, that’s part of the game. But it’s a pandemic. That bothered me because it took that opportunity away from him. I felt bad for him. I really did. That must’ve been very frustrating for him.”

If the frustration was boiling underneath, Matthews never let on publicly. He collected his Rocket Richard Trophy. He routinely professed his desire for two points, not 55 goals.

“Honestly, it hasn’t really weighed on me too much,” Matthews said inside American Airlines Center Thursday, just hours before he’d go out and bump Vaive to second place.

And yet, the eye test and stat sheets would argue that, just maybe, he was pressing a little.

“To be honest, I don’t think so,” Mark Giordano countered. “I just think he was that dominant tonight. He was just all over it. You could see right from the very start of the game.”

Morgan Rielly agreed: “He’s like that all the time. He’s always looking for more. He’s always creating chances. He hounds the puck — I don’t think that gets enough credit. He’s backchecking. He has takeaways, and he’s just creating offense all the time.

“Maybe he was,” Rielly continued. “But he’s not that type of guy to talk about it or openly be pushing for it. He’s just out there playing.”

With the record within grasp Tuesday in Florida, Matthews registered eight shots but finished with three assists instead. And it wasn’t until his 10th shot Thursday, during an unforgettable 4-3 overtime win in Dallas, that Papi became the granddaddy of all Maple Leafs goal scorers.

Since tying Vaive in Tampa Monday, Matthews has ripped 20 shots on net — his most ever in a two-game span. His 12 in Dallas set a new career-high.

“Just keep shooting. Try to break them down,” Matthews said of his mindset.

“You know, a lot of guys when they got get 50, they take a breath maybe for a game or two,” marveled Giordano. “But he’s actually turned it on even more.”

History was written with poetry.

With Rielly changing on the power play, Matthews one-timed goal Number 55 on pass from Number 55.

“Just laid it there for him, and he just pounded it,” Giordano said. “It’s awesome. I told him I get to be on the plaque now, and he’ll never forget me.”

Matthews dropped to his left knee to get the shot off, then dropped the right knee to celebrate with a fist pump so emphatic it could’ve knocked out Mike Tyson. He loosened a holler of elation.

“Put it right in the wheelhouse, so I tried to attack the puck,” Matthews explained.

“Just a lot of emotions running through your mind, I guess, and just running through your body when you see the puck go in. I don’t know really what else to say. But it was definitely exciting and a really fun moment.

“There was a lot of stuff going through my mind.”

Stars defenceman Miro Heiskanen flung the puck out of the net and down the ice in disgust.

Mitch Marner rushed to retrieve the souvenir, as head coach Sheldon Keefe walked along the bench to tap Matthews on the shoulder and congratulate his MVP.

“He said some really nice words,” Matthews relayed. “It means a lot.”

“It’s just such a great accomplishment. This organization’s been around a long time. A lot of great players. It was pretty special for him to be at the top of that list,” said Keefe.

“It’s Auston’s night tonight.”

Indeed.

For his encore, Matthews wound up in the neutral zone during overtime with 56 on his blade, burst past Tyler Seguin and deked Scott Wedgewood into the background of a poster coming near you.

The coach could be seen raising his eyebrows and trying to swallow an unswallowable grin as he walked to the dressing room post-win.

On the morning of the milestone, Matthews thought back to the snipers he grew up admiring. The Scottsdale phenom would go through phases where he’d wear his gear like them, tape his stick like them, and binge their YouTube highlights. One-name icons like Ovechkin, Malkin, Crosby, Kane, and Datsyuk.

Now? Matthews is the model for any aspiring young sniper.

He’s the one they watch. And for all future Maple Leafs, the one they must chase.

“It’s humbling. It’s cool,” Matthews considered. “Things come full circle sometimes, so it’s funny to think about.”

These are the rare nights where time stands still long enough for you to steal a peek back and sneak a look forward, all while soaking in the now.

Toronto’s Giordano, the newest Leaf but a lifelong fan, thought about what a massive deal it was in the city when he was a boy and Dave Andreychuk scored 50. He still remembers the celebration vividly.

“And I’m sure there’s a ton of kids that are gonna remember Matty breaking the record tonight,” Giordano said.

Ever gracious, Matthews described his record-setting as humbling and special. An honour.

But as he reached the peak of one mountain, he treated it as a base camp for the next one.

“We’re working towards something bigger than this,” Matthews said. “So it’s a nice stepping stone, but there’s a lot more work to be done.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Dallas’s leading goal scorer, Jason Robertson, says both he and little brother Nick have tried to borrow Matthews’ patented pull-and-release wrister that allows him to whip attempts even in tight traffic.

“It just comes natural to him. His release, his shot, everything. He doesn’t need a lot of space. I want to get to that point. But he shoots with a lot of confidence,” Robertson says.

“It’s definitely something where you kind of change the angle and pull it behind the guy’s stick. Not a lot of players can do that. He’s definitely one of the tops — if not the top player — that does that.”

• Awesome seeing a smiling Ben Bishop at American Airlines Center during the morning skate. Injuries forced the affable goaltender into retirement on Dec. 14, but he’s still working out around the team.

• Quote of the Day.

“He’s a streaky player. And he hasn’t had a streak yet.” —Stars legend Marty Turco on Alexander Radulov’s four-goal season, via Real Kyper & Bourne

• Jason Spezza was healthy scratched against his former team and has been benched three of the past four.

“He’s played here before. We’re at the point now where we have to make decisions,” said Keefe, who is trying to foster internal competition among his fourth-liners.

Spezza sits at 991 points with only 11 games remaining on Toronto’s schedule. He’s an impending UFA. His quest for 1,000 points is in danger.

• Top-liner Michael Bunting hasn’t scored a goal in 15 games, the longest drought of his NHL career.

“It starts to pile up and weigh on you a little bit,” Keefe said. “But he’s not a passenger on the line. He’s picking up points, and they’re not just gimme secondary assists. He’s on the forecheck, he’s on the track, he’s creating loose pucks, he’s creating havoc around the net…. He draws penalties, and that helps his linemates succeed on the power-play.”

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