Matthews nets milestone 40th goal as Leafs edge closer to coronation as kings of the North

From one Big M to another …

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While Auston Matthews has a long way to go to match Frank Mahovlich’s success, he’s in the same conversation as fastest to 40 goals.

Only four-time Stanley Cup winner Mahovlich made it faster than Matthews, taking 48 games in 1960-61 to Matthews’ hitting it in 49 Thursday night against Montreal.

Matthews didn’t get his marker in garbage time, it was needed insurance in a 5-2 win over the Canadiens at Scotiabank Arena with Montreal threatening a four-goal comeback.

“He’s on a mission this season,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “He’s not going to slow down.”

Matthews’ milestone was also part of the Leafs guaranteeing themselves a winning record and positive points percentage against all six rivals. NHL Stats says that hasn’t been done versus all comers in its division since 1937-38 and only once in franchise history before that.

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The regular-season coronation will have to wait, with the Edmonton Oilers still capable of passing Toronto by running the table and the Leafs going into cruise mode in their final three games. But having been eliminated in four straight opening rounds — and looking a little too pleased with themselves as Thursday’s game got tighter — the Leafs are unlikely to let their higher standards slip at this stage.

Matthews has all but clinched the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals, reaching 40 for the third time in five years. He was three shy of 50 last year before COVID-19 halted the regular season.

“It means a lot. I play with some really special players,” Matthews said. “It’ s a team sport, a lot goes into it.”

With one of his club’s three remaining matches against the Habs on Saturday — another win which would further prod a series between these two ancient rivals for the first time since 1979 — the Leafs’ record against them is 6-2-1 (.722). That goes with a completed slate of 6-1-2 against Edmonton (.778), 6-2-1 taking on Calgary (.722) and 4-3-1 (.563) against Vancouver.

With a game to go versus both Ottawa and Winnipeg, it’s 5-2-1 (.688) against the Sens and 6-3-0 (.667) opposing the Jets.

Thursday’s tilt first appeared to be a quick kill, with former Hab Alex Galchenyuk scoring on a backhander past rookie goalie Cayden Primeau on the first shot just 16 seconds in, then John Tavares with his 18th of the year on a rebound. Pierre Engvall found the short side for three goals on eight shots and, with two minutes remaining, Mitch Marner put the cherry on top with a slick backhand deke that just made it over the goal line. That brought Jake Allen off Montreal’s bench to start the second period.

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The Leafs had been faster to the puck and better on breakouts to negate the physical game the Canadiens tried to establish. But the tide gradually turned. Jack Campbell gave up a second-period goal to Cole Caufield, another on a rebound to Artturi Lehkonen early in the third and survived a Habs power play after that.

He, too, created some club history, becoming the first goalie to record 16 wins in his first 20 games of the year.

“That’s pretty cool and speaks volumes of how well our team is playing,” Campbell said. “I really didn’t have a whole lot to do tonight (22 shots), but the boys stuck to the game plan. We need a good start like that against Montreal.

“We have a great team and everyone’s contributing, but we’re not going to shy away from recognizing how special Auston is.”

Toronto defenceman Travis Dermott said there were other reasons to strive to be first, besides home-ice advantage against their eventual foe.

“You want the bragging rights, to be the best in your division,” Dermott said Thursday morning. “And a push for first will help our confidence (going into playoffs). But whether we finish in first or not, it’s about feeling good about ourselves and where we’re at with our game plan.”

If it’s to be the Habs, Dermott said it’s important to gather as much intel as possible this week. The Leafs lost the first of three in overtime at the Bell Centre on Monday.

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“You want the hard competition, you don’t want to be facing teams out of the playoffs who are playing light. Montreal’s perfect for us now, they’re coming at us hard,” Dermott said. “It will be nice to butt heads a bit before the big show happens.”

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The Leafs were without forwards Nick Foligno (upper body), Zach Hyman (knee), Riley Nash (lower body) and defenceman Zach Bogosian (upper body) and tried some new wrinkles on Thursday with winger Stefan Noesen making his Toronto debut. Fourth-line centre Adam Brooks sat, while Joe Thornton jumped all the way to the top to play with Matthews and Marner.

“I feel like I’m a chameleon,” the 41-year-old Thornton joked. “Put me anywhere in the lineup.”

The Canadiens, missing Carey Price, Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin, did get Tomas Tatar back Thursday, but two-way centre Phillip Danault didn’t get past the first period. It’s hoped Price’s concussion issues are cleared enough to get him in a game before the end of next week.

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