Months before Arizona Coyotes defenceman Jackob Chychrun held the stick of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, Sheldon Keefe was already making the case for a lack of penalties drawn by his star player.
“If, I’m not mistaken, I don’t think Auston’s drawn a penalty the entire season, which is strange considering how much he has the puck and how involved he is,” the Maple Leafs’ coach said back in December. “Those kinds of things, I think, are worth looking at if you’re involved with that.”
Those comments came two days removed from an on-ice incident that saw Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk get suspended a couple of games for a knee-on-knee hit on Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin. Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza was suspended six games (later reduced to four on appeal) for a retaliatory hit on Pionk.
Matthews wasn’t involved in that specific play. But earlier in the period, Matthews and Jets forward Pierre Luc-Dubois were involved in a wrestling match on the ice that resulted in offsetting penalties. The latter part of the sequence saw Dubois pin Matthews for a lengthy period of time before officials stopped play.
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There appears to be a strong disconnect between a player like Matthews, who leads the NHL in goals with 44 through games played on March 11 and is just six points behind Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau (82) in the race for the Art Ross Trophy, and the number of penalties drawn.
Connor McDavid leads the NHL with 40 penalties drawn. Given the talent of the Edmonton Oilers forward, there’s no surprise in that. Huberdeau is tied for 44th with 18 penalties drawn. Matthews is tied for 362nd in the NHL with seven penalties drawn?
“Part of it relates to the fact that in a lot of ways he’s unstoppable,” Keefe said on Friday. “He plays through traffic and obstruction, sticks and holds, a lot of players in the league can’t do that.”
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While there may be some truth to that, the number is still quite low and the topic came up for debate once again when Matthews gave an earful to referee Kendrick Nicholson after Chychrun scored following the missed hold on Matthews.
When asked about the exchange and the non-call, Matthews didn’t provide any comment, except to say “I felt what I felt” about the play.
Matthews challenging the standard of officiating is nothing new. In the 2021 season opener against the Montreal Canadiens, he took a series of hard cross-checks in front of the net that went uncalled.
The game was tied 4-4 with just seconds to play before the game went into overtime. The whistles were kept firmly in the offcials’ pockets, possibly because of the situation at the time.
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Matthews, when speaking to the media, asked for consistency when calling cross-checks.
“I mean, I think you always want to protect the players,” Matthews said the next day. “The guys have the right to defend the net and create that body position and stuff, but I think you have to find that happy medium, as far as the penalties and referring goes, you’ve just got to stay consistent.”
In a game against the Jets in April of 2021, the game was tied at 1-1 in overtime when Matthews was cross-checked into the boards by Winnipeg’s Andrew Copp. Perhaps it was the overtime or the fact that Winnipeg had just killed off a penalty, but the play wasn’t called and Matthews went to the bench angry.
A loud “you’re f***ing horrible” could be heard on the broadcast because the game was played in front of an empty arena. It was never confirmed who this came from.
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There is a pattern to all three games in question. All of the situations came when the game was tied and either late in regulation or overtime. What’s also interesting is that Nicholson is one of the two officials assigned to all of the games.
Refs don’t like being shown up and perhaps Matthews could take a different tact with the officials here. After the game on Thursday, Leafs captain John Tavares went over to the officials to have a chat about why the Chychrun hold wasn’t called.
“Obviously we don’t like it and disagree with it,” Tavares said of the play. “But at the same time, it is what it is and we disagree with it and we have to go out there and execute.”
Given the subjectivity of officiating lately, it’s not surprising that Keefe wants to move on from this topic. Especially when goaltending and team defence are still primary problems with the Leafs.
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Should Matthews be getting more calls? Probably. But he’s just one example of a lack of calls that have been happening in the game lately.
One day prior to that, the referees didn’t call Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin for a clear-path hook on Oilers forward Zach Hyman. With a 3-2 lead and an empty net, Hyman could have iced the game. However, play resumed and Capitals forward T.J. Oshie scored to force the game into overtime.
Edmonton went on to win the game in overtime.
On Friday, Blue Jackets forward Jakub Voracek was the recipient of a knee-on-knee of Minnesota Wild forward Marcus Foligno. The Wild were up 2-1 with under a minute to go and there was no call on the play.
Those are just a couple of examples of a lack of calls when the game is late and close. This is nothing new and it doesn’t appear to be changing, no matter how angry players or teams get.
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That’s why for the Maple Leafs and Matthews, the focus has to be moving on.
Earlier in the game, Matthews was quite vocal when the referees misses his 44th goal of the season. The NHL league office intervened and gave Matthews his goal while an animated Matthews motioned about how correct he was.’
His personality on the ice, in addition to talent, are what makes him a must-watch and a fan favourite. It’s great for the product on the ice, but you have to wonder if refs are taking receipts on his personality.
For better or worse, the standard of officiating is what it always has been and it doesn’t seem like that is going to change.
“Our message to players is we just have to play through these things,” Keefe said. “You can’t impact the way the game is called, you can’t control that.
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“It’s on us to put ourselves in a better spot. It went to overtime, if we play better, we’re not in that spot.”