TAMPA – Early Thursday, on the morning of this giant of an elimination game with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Auston Matthews will be announced as one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy. Which is basically the award that goes to the best player in the National Hockey League.
And this isn’t like last year when he was a finalist with no chance of winning. This time around, he’s probably the favourite. He’s considered by many to be the chosen one this year. And just a few days after scoring the biggest goal of his professional life, the winning goal in the frenetic 4-3 come from behind victory by the Maple Leafs in Game 5, more will be expected of Matthews in a place where the challenge will be extreme.
Matthews has had a decent five games against Tampa Bay, but not a lot that would have an unbiased individual think of him as the best player in hockey. He’s been fine, just not explosive. He’s had moments, not entire games. This can be a huge day for him, a huge night, a franchise-changing win for a franchise that has offered so much, promised so much and delivered so little in the post-season of the Brendan Shanahan years.
The real change in the Maple Leafs fortunes began when they were fortunate enough to get the first pick in the NHL Draft and come away with Matthews in 2016. Whatever they thought he was going to be then, he’s turned out to be more. And now this moment. The greatest of players live for these kinds of games, these reputation-altering nights.
What have we seen thus far in the Stanley Cup playoffs?
Sidney Crosby has been immense for the Pittsburgh Penguins: If the Conn Smythe Trophy was presented partway through the first round of the playoffs, he’d be the winner. Crosby has three Stanley Cups on his resume, one Stanley Cup defeat, and he looks to be hungry for another one in his 17th year.
His Nova Scotia counterparts, Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado and Brad Marchand in Boston have had gigantic beginnings to this playoff season also. And in Colorado, young defenceman Cale Makar is the only player who would challenge Crosby for top player significance in the early playoffs although the show Connor McDavid put on in an Edmonton Oilers defeat at home Tuesday night was one for the ages.
This is the time the best players come out and play. The way Kirill Kaprizov has emerged during the season and now in the post-season in Minnesota. The best players flex their muscles. They do what others can’t do. They take over games and if they can, they take over series. This is the Leafs eighth series-clinching game of Matthews’ time in Toronto.
The scorecard on this is not a good one: They are 0-and-7 in possible elimination games. In those seven games, Matthews has one goal and two assists. In four of those games, he had no points at all. Now it’s his turn to grab his piece of the Hart and show it off Thursday night. At loud and louder Amalie Arena, a modern-day Chicago Stadium without the grunge. Where he’ll likely be playing against the defensive wizards Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli. Where not everything is set up in his favour.
Matthews led the NHL in goal scoring this season and the race, if there was one, wasn’t particularly close. He led the league in shots on goal and shot attempts and even-strength goals and was the most dangerous scoring weapon the NHL has frankly seen in years.
He has three goals in this series. That places him ninth in the post-season, where he is tied with 22 others. He’s not first in shots, he’s 15th. He’s not first in even-strength goals, he ranks 12th, tied with 34 others. The winning goal on Tuesday, a rather wondrous 2-on-1 ending up with Matthews scoring off an Andrei Vasilevskiy rebound, off a Mitch Marner part-shot but mostly pass. Bang-bang and it was in the net. That’s what Matthews can do better than anyone in hockey. The puck almost flies off his stick.
Matthews is at a different place in hockey, great as his linemate Marner can be, great as William Nylander can be, smart as John Tavares can be.
But this is where coach Sheldon Keefe divides his roster. He knows what he has in the big-bodied Matthews and uses him as much as he can. Matthews played almost 24 minutes in Game 5, which is enormous when you consider he doesn’t kill penalties. As great as Nylander was the other night, the coach played him almost seven minutes less than Matthews. Jon Cooper played Steven Stamkos seven minutes less than Matthews as well.
The same kind of allocation is likely to occur in this possible clinching game Thursday evening. The last time Tampa Bay trailed 3-2 in a playoff series, they lost Game 6 and the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015. They’ve played 13 elimination games the past two seasons, winning eight, losing four of them in overtime, and never losing a series. But never trailing in recent times the way they trail now.
The Leafs were built around Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, first-round picks from three consecutive drafts. The time is now to take another step. The time is right on this special day and night for Matthews.