Knee Jerk Reaction: Matthews misses out on 70th goal as Leafs check out of regular season

Photo credit:© Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Nick Richard
9 days ago
Though the Leafs only learned who their opponent would be in the first round of the playoffs after game 81 on Tuesday night, they’ve been practically locked into third place in the Atlantic for the last few weeks, leaving them little to strive for beyond a milestone 70th goal for Auston Matthews. That was more evident as the Leafs were downed in the final game of the regular season against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday than it had been at any other point, but Matthews was kept out of the goal column in the 6-4 loss.
After a stretch of 10 goals in just eight games before Monday’s game against the Panthers, Matthews was unable to add his name to the exclusive list of players to score 70 in a season, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. The Leafs were clearly focused on feeding Matthews in the early portion of the game, and he fired seven shots on goal in the first period alone.
Matthews was unable to beat Lightning netminder Matt Tomkins in the opening frame, but he was all around it again to begin the second period and eventually put one behind Tomkins off a spectacular individual effort. Unfortunately, his shot found iron for the 20th time this season and stayed out of the net. Despite earning a number of dangerous opportunities and finishing the game with 11 shots on goal, that was as close as Matthews would get, leaving him hanging on 69 goals to close out the season.
A Matthews goal on that play would have put him among elite company, and also brought the Leafs to within one, but the game unravelled for them from there as they got into penalty trouble and allowed the Lightning to increase their lead. Adding a bit of salt to the wound, long-time Leafs nemesis Nikita Kucherov did manage to reach a milestone of his own, becoming the second player this season and just the fifth all-time to reach 100 assists in a season.
The Leafs made it look a bit closer with late goals from TJ Brodie, Pontus Holmberg, and John Tavares, but the game was well out of reach by then.
Matthews and his teammates are sure to be disappointed that he was unable to reach that nice round number, but 69 goals is still a remarkable season that will earn him his third Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer. Now, after closing out the regular season schedule with four straight losses, the focus for Matthews and the rest of the team will have to quickly shift to a tough first-round matchup with the rival Boston Bruins that gets underway on Saturday night.
Even before potting an eye-popping 69 goals this season, Matthews was well-established as one of the most dominant players in the league and one of the most talented goal scorers the game has ever seen. It’s impossible to poke holes in Matthews’ regular season resume as he has grown into a difference-maker at both ends of the ice, but playoff success has proved almost entirely elusive for the Leafs through the first seven years of his career.
69 goals or 70 goals, everyone knows what Matthews is capable of. He has been the engine of this team for pretty much his entire career, but the next step is doing that in the spring and leading the Leafs on a deep playoff run. The clock may have run out on Matthews’ push for that next milestone, but he’ll have another chance to build upon his legacy when the puck drops against Boston to begin the postseason.
Statistics from NHL.com

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