Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Auston Matthews is reaching a new level

Despite the Leafs’ loss to the Jets last night, Auston Matthews was the story.

He scored two goals in the game, one to open the scoring and one to tie the game late and send it to overtime, giving him 30 goals on the season. It was the fourth time in his four-year career Matthews had eclipsed the 30-goal plateau, making him only the 15th player in league history to reach such a feat. Matthews has 142 goals in 257 games in his NHL career and he’s on pace to finally reach the 50-goal mark this season. He’s been a great goal-scorer since breaking into the league as a 19-year-old, but, this season, he’s reaching another level.

For those who missed the game, here are his goals from last night…

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First, he takes a feed from Mitch Marner in the Jets’ zone and roofs a shot over a completely frozen Connor Hellebyuck to tie the game at 1-1. The best part of this goal, though, wasn’t the perfect shot. It was the backcheck, steal, and between-the-legs pass to Marner that Matthews made to flip a Jets transition into a Leafs opportunity.

Then, in the dying moments of the game with the Leafs down by one goal, Matthews blasts a one-timer past Hellebyuck from just inside the point. The wild thing about this shot is how Hellebyuck wasn’t even screened. Matthews just beat him.

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Those two goals gave Matthews 31 on the season. That puts him on pace to score 56 when it’s all said and done. Barring injury, he won’t just hit the 50-goal plateau, he’ll shatter it. Since Mike Babcock was fired and replaced by Sheldon Keefe, Matthews has scored 17 goals in 22 games. That’s a 63-goal pace.

So, what’s happened? What has Keefe done to help Matthews reach a new level? It honestly isn’t even that complicated. He’s just playing him more. In 23 games under Babcock, Matthews scored 14 goals, averaging 19:50 minutes per game. He has 17 goals in 22 games under Keefe and is averaging 20:42 minutes per game.

After watching Babcock staple Matthews to the bench in key playoff games in recent years, it’s refreshing to see Keefe let the team’s star player have an opportunity to be exactly that. In Game 7 against Boston last year, Matthews played just 18:48. In Game 7 the year before, he played 18:06. A criticism of Matthews throughout his young career is that he hasn’t been able to take over games like other young stars, but maybe he just wasn’t being given the opportunity to do so.

It’s easy to forget that Matthews is only 22 years old. The best is still yet to come.