Matthews misses out on 70 as Maple Leafs end season with 6-4 loss to Lightning

Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Joseph Zita
9 days ago
Game 82 has come and gone after the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning squared off last night for the fourth and final time this regular season as both teams get ready for their respective first-round matchups that begin soon.

First period:

Although Tuesday night’s game had some playoff implications, last night’s Toronto – Tampa Bay game was the definition of meaningless for both sides. However, playing your brand of hockey and fine-tuning things with the playoffs days away is always great. And for Toronto, the way they have been playing the last week, they needed a much better effort if they wanted to feel good about themselves heading into game one against Boston.
But along with both teams playing game 82 to fix some details in their game, there was a superstar on either side chasing a milestone with just one game to go. Auston Matthews entered last night chasing 70 goals, and Nikita Kucherov chasing 100 assists. Both, if reached, are incredible milestones. Unfortunately for Toronto, Tampa Bay opened the scoring up roughly four minutes in, thanks to an easy redirect goal from Nick Paul that beat Martin Jones for his 24th of the season. Toronto fell apart in the second period against Florida, getting exposed in the defensive zone as they struggled to defend the Panthers’ forecheck, and on this goal and the next one that followed, the Maple Leafs didn’t look all that great in their zone.
Roughly two minutes after the opening goal from Paul, Nikita Kucherov buried his rebound past Jones, giving his team the 2-0 lead just like that. It’s hard to fault Jones for either goal when the coverage in front of him isn’t the greatest, resulting in a tough challenge for the netminder and the fact he hasn’t seen much game action lately. Fortunately, Toronto was sent to the power play after Brandon Hagel was whistled for tripping. Almost the entire shift from the top unit was them trying to feed Auston Matthews the puck for goal number 70, but the Lightning’s impressive penalty kill kept the road team off the scoreboard.
But who needs a power play goal anyway? After falling behind 2-0 and going 0-for-1 on the man advantage, Toronto’s fourth line went to work in the Lightning’s zone against their top line and found the back of the net thanks to a Ryan Reaves one-timer that beat Matt Tomkins from distance, cutting Tampa Bay’s lead in half.
Although he didn’t find the back of the net in the first period, Auston Matthews led all skaters after 20 minutes with seven (!) shots, and his team returned to the power play with roughly a minute to go after Brayden Point was sent to the penalty box for holding.
Toronto entered the first intermission down 2-1 despite outshooting Tampa Bay 16-10.

Second period:

After recording seven shots in the first period, it was clear Toronto had two goals on their mind last night, and that was to play a competitive game, win or lose, and feed Auston Matthews the puck in hopes of getting him to 70 goals. Unfortunately, similarly to the night before in Sunrise against the Panthers, the second period was not kind to the Maple Leafs. Against Florida, Toronto got outplayed from start to finish. They were outshot 29-4, outscored 4-0, and had little to no offensive zone time. Last night, it was a similar same story. They didn’t get outplayed to the same level as they did against Florida, but some identical mistakes crept up in their game, and it ultimately bit them in the behind for three goals in a little over 10 minutes.
Anthony Duclair kicked things off in the middle frame by scoring off a rebound for his 24th goal of the season, giving his team the 3-1 lead just before the midway point in the game. Similar to the Panthers’ game, the parade to the penalty box got out of hand for Toronto after they were called for five minor penalties in the middle period.
It wasn’t just Auston Matthews chasing history with 70 goals. As mentioned earlier, Nikita Kucherov was looking to become the fifth player in NHL history to record 100 assists in a season. And on their third power play of the night, Kucherov fed Brayden Point a pass, and he ripped his 47th goal of the season past Jones for the 4-1 lead.
With 100 assists finally achieved for Kucherov, Matthews was up next with a little over 20 minutes to go in the game. Unfortunately, less than a minute after the Lightning’s fourth goal, Brandon Hagel received a stretch pass up the ice from Calvin de Haan, and he beat Jones on a breakaway for his 25th goal of the season, giving his team the commanding 5-1 lead with roughly three minutes to go in the period.
Toronto entered the second intermission down 5-1, outshooting Tampa Bay 25-24.

Third period:

Now, there were just 20 minutes for Matthews to join an elite list of eight players who’ve scored 70 goals in a single season. But after watching the first 40 minutes and seeing Matthews throw the puck at the net numerous times, whether Tomkins stopped him, a Lightning player blocked his shot, or Matthews ringing the iron for the 22nd time this season, getting to number 70 felt like it was going to be a difficult challenge, and that’s precisely what it was.
Through the first 10-ish minutes, Toronto was held off the scoreboard despite being awarded their third power play of the game. Countless looks for the top unit that tried to feed Matthews the puck, but it wasn’t meant to be. After being unsuccessful on the man advantage, Tampa Bay’s bottom-six extended their lead with a quick shot from Tanner Jeannot that beat Jones from a ridiculous angle.
Suddenly, it’s 6-1 Lightning, and Matthews is still without goal number 70. But at this point, a loss was inevitable, and although his goal would’ve come in a loss, getting 70 was on every member of Toronto’s mind as the game started to wind down. With roughly six minutes to go, on a delayed penalty, Auston Matthews hopped on the ice and bolted to the net. In hopes of getting a deflection from Matthews, T.J. Brodie blasted a shot from the point, and he beat Tomkins for his first goal of the season and first tally since December 31, 2022, against the Colorado Avalanche.
Now Toronto is down by four goals, but again, a loss was inevitable. The fans were anticipating when the next shift from Matthews was going to be and if he was going to score or not. Roughly two and a half minutes after Brodie found the back of the net, the bottom-six went to work again in the Tampa Bay zone, and Pontus Holmberg pulled off a nifty backhand, forehand move as he roofed his seventh goal of the season, making it a three-goal game with just under four minutes to go.
After cutting it to a three-goal deficit, Sheldon Keefe pulled Martin Jones for the extra attacker to give his team a lengthy 6-on-5 advantage. For the duration of the final three minutes, everyone wanted Matthews to have the puck, but everyone on the Lightning was trying to avoid that. He did get his looks as the game concluded, but it wasn’t meant to be.
With a little over 30 seconds left in regulation, John Tavares finished a passing play by one-timing his 29th goal of the season past Tomkins for their fourth goal of the night, ultimately losing 6-4 in their regular-season finale.

Who stood out:

Morgan Rielly, Jake McCabe, and Joel Edmundson sat out for the season finale for rest, joining Max Domi and Bobby McMann (injuries) on the sidelines before the playoffs begin. This means Toronto played game 82 significantly short-handed, and although their overall effort wasn’t the best, especially giving up six goals – fourth consecutive game giving up five – their late rally in the third was a good sign.
You could tell that this game meant nothing to Toronto. They were too fixated on trying to get Matthews to 70 goals, but that aside, playing the right way heading into the playoffs is what this team probably should’ve tried. Now, it’s hard when you’re resting guys every other night, you’re dealing with injuries, and you used three different goalies for the final three games, but the Maple Leafs of the last four games are not what they had been or want to be heading into Boston this weekend.
A promising sign, though, is the depth that continues to produce for the Maple Leafs. Ryan Reaves (4) and Pontus Holmberg (7) got goals last night, and T.J. Brodie netted his first goal of the season. Heading into the playoffs, Toronto needs a handful of players to contribute goal-scoring-wise outside of the primary producers. We know the big guys can score, but this team has often shown us they can struggle with scoring in the playoffs.
This season, the Maple Leafs had nine players score ten or more goals, including four players who finished with seven or eight goals while missing parts of the season. They also acquired Connor Dewar from the Wild ahead of the trade deadline, and although he only scored one goal for Toronto in 17 games, his single goal with the Maple Leafs gave him 11 on the season after scoring 10 in 57 games with Minnesota. The depth heading into the first round this year might be the best it’s been in a while, but of course, there’s only one way to prove that, and it’s in the playoffs when it matters most.
You can catch the Toronto Maple Leafs’ next game on Saturday night when they head to Boston to take on the Bruins in game one of the 2024 NHL playoffs. Puck drop is scheduled for 8:00 pm ET/5:00 pm PT.
(Stats from hockey-reference.com)

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