When you think about the Leafs’ 2019-20 campaign, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it Mike Babcock making the baffling decision to scratch Jason Spezza on opening night? Or how about that loss to the Penguins, followed by that save from Fleury, followed by Babcock being fired and Sheldon Keefe taking over? Maybe it’s in reference to some young players making an immediate impact. Alternatively, you’re probably thinking of a 42-year-old Zamboni driver who works for the organization.
All of those are worthy contenders of moments that will define that season when we look back on it years down the line. But I feel like I’m leaving something out, can anyone help me out with what I’m forgetting?
Just a reminder that Auston Matthews did this to the Buffalo Sabres 10 months ago. pic.twitter.com/E1qfAwEHMM
— Nick Barden (@nickbarden) October 28, 2020
Ah yes, Auston Matthews’ quest to reach the half-century mark for goals was by far one of the most talked-about storylines of the regular season. Seeing how he was one of the few who stayed healthy and played at a high level throughout, him becoming just the fourth player in franchise history to record 50 goals in a season felt very real.
And then a global pandemic happened which shattered those dreams into pieces.
Matthews had 47 goals prior to COVID-19 prematurely ending the regular season, one shy of tying David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin who both led the NHL in goals. Given how rare it is for a Leafs player to win a major individual award (nevermind hit 50 goals), it was no doubt frustrating to see him get robbed of making history.
At the time of the season being paused, Matthews had scored 0.67 goals-per-game. It equates to a roughly 55 goal campaign in an 82 game season, meaning that he could have also set the record for most goals in a season by a Leafs player (Rick Vaive and Dave Andreychuk each scored 54 goals while donning the Blue and White).
It’s not just the historical significance of achieving the feat that made the chase so special, it was how the fans, media members, and his teammates rallied around Matthews in his pursuit of immortality. All of which culminated in Jack Campbell and Kasperi Kapanen sporting moustaches in the final weeks of the regular season. The pandemic crushing that dream too soon left many people longing for what could have been.
The fanbase has been through quite a lot since the turn of the millennium with more lows than highs. The Leafs drafting Matthews first overall back in 2016 marked the beginning of a new era that brought back hope to a city longing for sustained success with its hockey team. For the most part, that has become a reality with him leading the way. It’s something that Leafs were unaccustomed to since the days of Mats Sundin.
So when Matthews began the 19-20 season on a tear with goals galore, it felt both surreal and real that he could actually achieve the feat. Being that deep into uncharted territory only to have it snagged away by forces beyond anyone’s control is going to leave a sour taste in many people’s mouths for years to come.
— NHL (@NHL) March 11, 2020
But as disheartening as it was to see Matthews robbed of setting a new benchmark, the journey throughout the campaign is what made his chase for glory so captivating. Not only was he within striking range of the half-century mark, but he had also been one of the front-runners all year for the Rocket Richard Trophy. In an alternate universe where COVID doesn’t exist, Matthews could have also rewritten the franchise record books and surpass the likes of Vaive and Andreychuk along the way.
Who knows, maybe Matthews can reach the plateau in a 56 game season against Canadian teams; or perhaps we see the milestone finally reached in 2021-22 when society (hopefully) re-opens. We might look back on his performance in 2019-20 as a prologue to him tearing up the league whilst in the middle of his prime.
Regardless of whether or not he hits the milestone, no one will ever take away the magic and excitement that was witnessing Matthews’ first legit shot at 50 goals in a season. That’s why it’s one of the top hockey stories of 2020.
All stats unless otherwise noted are from Hockey-Reference.com.