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Auston Matthews’ career year gives Maple Leafs playoff hopes

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs upon us, Pro Hockey Talk's Sean Leahy previews the Eastern Conference bracket, from the Lightning's quest for a three-peat to the Maple Leafs looking to exorcise half a century of demons.

Auston Matthews is having the best season of his career, and that’s quite a feat.

Toronto’s No. 1 overall pick from the 2016 NHL draft has lived up to the hype from the start of his rookie year through last season, averaging a little more than a point per game while turning around a long-suffering franchise.

Matthews led the Maple Leafs into the playoffs in each of his first five years in the league after they had been in the postseason only once in the previous 11 years.

The proud franchise, though, has not advanced in the playoffs since 2004, when Matthews was 6 years old. Toronto has played in a decisive playoff game the past four postseasons, and lost each elimination game.

“The scars that leaves behind is the extra motivation, a little extra fire that burns within to go out there and make a difference and have a different outcome,” Matthews said. “Everybody on the team, and everybody in this organization, is confident in one another and extremely motivated to change the narrative and have success come postseason time.

“It’s about doing — not talking about it — and I know that this group feels ready.”

It certainly helps the Maple Leafs to have a 24-year-old superstar, perhaps in his prime, leading the way.

Matthews smashed his career high with 60 goals, reaching the milestone this past week and breaking Rick Vaive’s 40-year-old franchise record. He had 106 points in 73 games and has improved as a two-way player, making him a favorite to win his first Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP.

The Maple Leafs, not coincidently, have set franchise records for wins and points before their highly anticipated postseason appearance begins Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“We were a good team last season and felt we made positive moves in the offseason to add to our depth,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Our players are a year older, have come together and continued to grow their game to find greater consistency in their habits and execution. We’ve also seen significant improvements this season on both the power play and penalty kill that have helped us win a lot of games.”

Toronto has scored on a league-best 30% of its power plays after ranking 16th in the NHL last year. The Maple Leafs rank among NHL leaders in penalty killing after being among the worst a season ago.

Matthews isn’t on the ice often in short-handed situations, but he has become enough of a defensive forward that he get some votes for the Selke Award.

His goal-scoring has put him in a position to win his second straight Richard Trophy, lighting the lamp the most in the league, to join Steve Stamkos (2012) and Alex Ovechkin (2008) as the only 60-goal scorers this century.

“Auston has been a prolific scorer since coming into the league so it should be no surprise that as he’s gotten older, he’s raised the bar,” Keefe said earlier this week. “Offseason surgery (in mid-August) solved the discomfort he had most of last season with his wrist, so that has helped him feel better and shoot with greater confidence and strength.”

Matthews missed six games this season due to injury, including three last week for an undisclosed ailment.

“It’s obviously not the best time of year to be dealing with something like that, but I’m sure he’ll be OK,” Toronto defenseman Justin Holl said.

Matthews, born in California and raised in Arizona, had an OK surrounding cast earlier in his NHL career and now has quite a group to skate with and stop shots.

Right wing Mitch Marner, taken by Toronto No. 4 overall in 2015, a year before Matthews was selected, is having the best year of his career. Goaltender Jack Campbell, acquired at the 2020 trade deadline, is giving up fewer than three goals a game and has 30-plus wins for the first time in his seven-year career.

“I’m fortunate to play with some really special players,” Matthews said. “Our chemistry has really grown a lot, and we really push each other to make each other better. And, we have a lot of fun out there as well.”

It was no fun for Matthews, or the Maple Leafs, to fall short in the first round the past five postseasons.

During those first three early exits, Mike Babcock was their coach. This spring, the team’s former coach expects Matthews to help the Maple Leafs break through in the playoffs.

“As good as he was in the past, he was not the best player on the ice in the playoffs and now he will be the best player in the series,” said Babcock, who was fired early in the 2019-20 season with a 173-133-45 record. “He has come of age, which takes time. It took Michael Jordan seven years to win a championship.

“The team’s dominant players, Auston and Mitch, are as good as any players in the league. Going into these playoffs, they’re men, not boys, and I expect them to have a lot of success.”