Playing in arguably one of their biggest games of the season, the Toronto Maple Leafs needed their stars to shine Thursday — and their biggest star did just that.
Rocket Richard Trophy candidate Auston Matthews knocked in his 44th goal of the season in a hotly contested, back-and-forth battle with the Panthers in Florida. The marker knotted the game 3-3 in the first period and capped a two-goal comeback by the Leafs with just over a minute left in the opening frame. Toronto would go on to win the contest 5-3 and maintain a hold on the Atlantic Division's third spot.
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Matthews started the play with a dump-and-chase, tracked down the puck behind the goal line and threw a hit on MacKenzie Weegar that kept him out of the play. He then got the puck to Mitchell Marner, who set up Zach Hyman — and had all four Panthers down low focusing on him. Hyman's attempted move around netminder Sergei Bobrovsky sent the puck right to an open Matthews for the goal.
The goal is huge considering the Leafs are playing with just 11 forwards. Coach Sheldon Keefe opted to dress seven defenseman with a young and inexperienced blue-line group. Veteran defenseman Jake Muzzin suffered a broken hand in the team's last game and joined Morgan Rielly and Cody Ceci on the sideline.
He now has recorded 22 points (13 goals, nine assists) in 21 games against Atlantic Division teams this season and on Thursday night against Florida, he led the team in shots (six), shot attempts (11), faceoff wins (10) and takeaways (two).
Despite not scoring in Toronto's last three games and only having one goal in his last five, Matthews is now just two behind the Bruins' David Pastrnak and one ahead of the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin for the Richard Trophy. He is on pace for 56 goals this season.