It’s no secret that the stakes for Toronto Maple Leafs star forward Auston Matthews were raised this postseason. After signing a five-year, $58.2 million contract extension, the performance expectations for Matthews were raised immediately. But through five games of Toronto’s first-round series against the Boston Bruins, the star center has made a crucial impact. The Leafs defeated the Bruins 2-1 in Game 5, with Matthews scoring Toronto’s first goal. According to Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, Game 5 was where Matthews shined on both ends of the ice.
“I thought tonight, in particular, was his best 200-footer of the playoffs,” said Babcock. “He was outstanding, involved in so many breakouts. He was there and available for the D.”
Auston Matthews Underperformed in Previous Playoffs
The buzz surrounding Auston Matthews was apparent since the No. 1 draft pick scored four goals in his NHL debut. His rookie season, where he scored a career-high 40 goals and racked up 29 assists, earned him the Calder Trophy. Matthews’ quick, blitzing shot and ability to move into the attacking zone, makes him a prolific goal scorer for the Maple Leafs.
But even with back to back 30 goal seasons, the cloud of skepticism on Matthews has been his playoff performance. Against the Washington Capitals, a team that plays a similar speedy game to the Maple Leafs, Matthews shined with four goals and one assist in six games. However, the Bruins presented a greater challenge for Matthews in 2018. Their physicality and toughness would often slow down Matthews and prevent him from getting into open space. With only one goal and one assist in a seven-game series loss to the Bruins, Matthews was quick to take responsibility for his lack of production.
“I thought the first half of the series probably wasn’t good enough.” Matthews said. “The (second) half of the series, had chances. I thought I did things right for the most part and couldn’t capitalize on the opportunities. Sometimes that happens. That’s the way it goes.
“You always want to contribute on the scoresheet. It’s frustrating.”
Every young hockey player wants to perform on the big stage. While youth and inexperience can be factors for underperformance, it can only last for so long. As Auston Matthews entered his third season in the NHL, more watchful eyes were on him like never before. It was a chance for him to quash the critics, who were starting to revel with the notion that Matthews could only perform in the regular season.
“The bottom line is the league is a really good league and when you’re a really good player, you play against the best players who check you the hardest,” Babcock stated. “They’ve got the scouting report on you, they work hard. That’s just the way it is. Part of your growth process is learning to fight through that.
Matthews Showcasing Speed, and Goalscoring
Before Game 3 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Auston Matthews made a critical change. He would swap out his Bauer stick, one that has provided him with great success during his NHL campaign, to a model from Warrior. According to Matthews, he wanted a more comfortable feel after going goalless the last four games of the regular season and the first two this playoff series against the Bruins.
Matthews has never looked back. In the last three games, he has recorded four goals. He leads the Maple Leafs in goals (4), points (5), and shots on goal (24). On Friday in Game 5, with the game 0-0 in the third period, Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin dished a tremendous pass to Matthews, who put the puck in the back of the net. But Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy challenged the call, saying that there was goalie interference. After a season filled with reversed calls on Matthews goals, it was relieving to know that in the playoffs, the review finally went his way.
“I was just praying they were going to call it a goal,” said Matthews. “A lot going through your mind there. I haven’t had the best of luck as far as (reviews) go. It’s nice to get one back. I’ll take it in the playoffs any day of the week.”
As the Maple Leafs head back home for Game 6, a lot is on the line for this team. Up 3-2, Toronto is looking to win its first playoff series since 2004 when they defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games. While Mitch Marner and John Tavares have captured the headlines with their stellar play on the first line, don’t overlook Auston Matthews. If he continues to be a scoring threat, as well as being physical on the defensive side, he is earning his $12 million a year in average annual salary.
“You’re a year older, you’ve been around, you look around the league and you see other real high-end players with no points. That’s playoff hockey. Sometimes your teammates got to buy you some time,” says Babcock.
“I feel if he plays really well without the puck, he’s going to have the puck a ton and in the end, he’ll score.”