Maple Leafs Seeing More Maturity & Leadership From Matthews

The last time the Toronto Maple Leafs played in Arizona was Sheldon Keefe’s first game as the head coach. The team had basically quit on former coach Mike Babcock, and Keefe flew in (with Pierre Engvall beside him on the plane) to take charge. That game was on November 21, 2019. 

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The team won by a score of 3-1, which became the first of many victories in the past two-plus seasons for Keefe (his team has posted a record of 85-37-15 during his tenure). Although Engvall scored a short-handed goal that became the game-winner, hometown lad Auston Matthews scored for the Blue and White during the third period. 

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Last night, the Maple Leafs ran into a scalding hot goalie and couldn’t win. However, some things stayed the same. Matthews admitted that he liked playing at home in Phoenix; and, once again, Matthews scored in the third period. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Maple Leafs lost 2-1 to stop its point streak on this road trip at two games. Funny game, hockey. After taking three of four points against two of the best teams in the NHL in the Colorado Avalanche and the Vegas Golden Knights, the Maple Leafs lost to the “then” worst team in the NHL. 

However, as a result of that win, the Coyotes are now NOT the worst team in the NHL. That “honor” goes to the Montreal Canadiens, which will make at least one regular reader (Herb) smile.

Auston Matthews Channeled Jumbo Joe Thornton After the Game

I know that many Maple Leafs’ fans believe having Jumbo Joe Thornton on the team last season was a waste of salary-cap space. I’m not one of them. I thought Thornton brought a level measure of mental maturity to the team that helped the younger stars – players like Matthews – engage their vocation in a calmer, more realistic, and professional manner. 

Joe Thornton Toronto Maple Leafs
Joe Thornton, when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Obviously, Thornton is driven to win a Stanley Cup because he’s still hanging in with the Florida Panthers this season rather than hanging out at home in Davos, Switzerland. Still, Thornton didn’t live or die with a loss. And that level-headed mental ability could go far in helping the Maple Leafs over the postseason hump they’ve experienced the past few seasons. There are times you simply need to shrug off a loss, give credit where credit is due, then buckle down and get back to work.

Matthews Obviously Wants to Win, But a Loss Right Now Won’t Make Him Crazy

One thing I liked about last night’s game from the Maple Leafs’ point of view was that Matthews – like Thornton – obviously wanted to win. But the 2-1 loss didn’t make him mental. 

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After the game, Matthews told the media that he felt the Maple Leafs had played a good game but had run into a hot goalie. He was correct. Karel Vejmelka, who most Maple Leafs’ fans hadn’t heard of until last night – I admit I had not – stopped everything but Matthews’ perfect shot. The Czech goalie at the other end of the ice – not Petr Mrazek – ended up saving 45 of 46 shots in his team’s win over the Maple Leafs.

Karel Vejmelka Arizona Coyotes
Karel Vejmelka, Arizona Coyotes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Specifically, Matthews said, “I thought we really controlled the play for the most part of the game, especially that second period and, you know, sometimes you just run into a hot goalie and you have to tip your hat to him.” (from “​​Dzingel scores twice, Vejmelka big in net as Coyotes stun Maple Leafs, spoil Auston Matthews homecoming, Jose M. Romero, Arizona Republic, 12/01/22).

Matthews Is Correct, Vejmelka Stopped Everything – But One

Matthews, of course, is correct. Other than the goal he scored, Vejmelka was perfect. Also, of course, it can happen to really good teams in the NHL every once in a while. A hot goalie steals a game and the better team ends up losing.

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To his own credit, Matthews kept trying; and, with just seconds to go in the game, he almost tied it. It wasn’t to be. Obviously, coach Keefe wanted this win badly because he played Matthews for 24:24 minutes during the game.

Matthews Is Putting on a Scoring Push and Carrying This Team

Matthews has been hot recently. Last night, he scored his fourth goal in three games. Looking back, it’s been almost two months (mid-November) since he’s gone more than two games without scoring. 

His totals are now 24 goals (which ties him with Alex Ovechkin for second in the NHL and are two behind Leon Draisaitl for the NHL lead). He also has 38 points in 32 games, which leads the Maple Leafs in scoring. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Finally, Matthews set a franchise record when he scored last night. The goal was his ninth in nine straight road games. That record had been held by Babe Dye (who played with the Toronto St. Pats from 1919-1926), Frank Mahovlich (who played with the Maple Leafs from 1956-1968), and Daniel Marios (who played with the Maple Leafs from 1987-1992).

Matthews Praises Vejmelka, Likes Playing at Home

I liked it that Matthews tipped his hat to Vejmelka, who was about as hot a goalie as one can meet – at least last night. I’m not so certain that I liked how much Matthews admitted he liked playing at home. 

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews Is Undergoing a Transformation

The big question for the future I have is this: “Is Matthews’ love of playing at home in Phoenix bad news for the Maple Leafs?”