- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
Auston Matthews knows when to seize a moment.
The Maple Leafs’ star forward, and NHL’s leading goal scorer in the regular season, hadn’t scored since Game 1 of Toronto’s first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against Tampa Bay. When Matthews lit the lamp again, it was to tally the game-winner in Tuesday’s Game 5, capping off a furious comeback that gave the Maple Leafs a 3-2 series lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“It was pretty special,” Matthews said of the goal. “To battle back from down two goals, and never losing hope and competing, that was big.”
The play materialized off a two-on-one chance with linemate Mitchell Marner, who sent a puck off Andrei Vasilevskiy’s pad to land perfectly in place for Matthews to bury.
“He’s such a special player,” Matthews said of Marner, “that anytime he’s got the puck, I just try to get open or try to anticipate it’s coming to me. Just an unbelievably key play by him and I knew I just had to get my stick on the ice.”
It was a storybook ending for Matthews and the Maple Leafs, a stark contrast to the team’s woeful start.
Tampa Bay was in control of the game early, scoring goals 52 seconds apart in the first period to leave the Maple Leafs shell-shocked. After 20 minutes, the Lightning not only led 2-0, but were outshooting Toronto 14-4.
The team that scored first in each of the series’ opening four games had gone on to win. Game 5 looked headed for a similar finish.
In Toronto’s dressing room during first intermission though, veteran forward Jason Spezza was delivering a speech that would get the Leafs headed back on the right track.
“Spezz got everyone in the room and said some stuff,” Matthews said. “And I thought we came out in the second with a really good purpose after that. We had to get out there and execute and get back to our game.”
Back on the ice, John Tavares quickly brought Toronto within one on the power play, tipping a shot by William Nylander past Vasilevskiy. That ignited the home crowd, and the Leafs continued to take over with good offensive zone pressure. Vasilevskiy was up to the onslaught, and Jack Campbell at the other end made a pair of key stops against Nick Paul (one while the Lightning were shorthanded) to hold the Leafs’ deficit at 2-1.
The game’s physicality picked up as well, including a bone-rattling hit by Matthews on Mikhail Sergachev that sent Tampa’s young blueliner to the ice in pain.
It was one of seven hits Matthews was credited with, which led all skaters. While the NHL’s back-to-back Rocket Richard Trophy winner is most talked about for his goal-scoring, there’s a more multifaceted side to Matthews that isn’t so often highlighted.
“His whole game is all just really good,” Tavares said of Matthews. “When you score 60 goals (in the regular season), that’s going to get (discussed), and how he scores it in different ways and the uniqueness of his shot in his abilities, but his all-around game is as good as anybody’s in the league. So, it’s not surprising he’s been (hitting guys).
“He’s going to play hard and compete because they’re making it hard on him to earn his ice and opportunities, so good for him to play them hard.”
The Leafs were still down 2-1 going into the third, and Tampa had the early advantage with a power play try less than three minutes in. A high-sticking call against Steven Stamkos negated that power play after 10 seconds, and Morgan Rielly scored the equalizing goal less than a minute later.
Nylander had the Leafs up 3-2 from there, marking the first time there had been a lead change in the entire series to date.
Ryan McDonagh’s slapshot responded for Tampa, and then it was Matthews’ turn to take it away and put Toronto one win away from the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 2004.
The often-reserved Matthews didn’t hold back from celebrating the goal either, something his teammates loved to see.
“That’s a huge goal. It deserves a big celly,” Nylander said. “Nice to see that one go in.”
Matthews insisted though it was a team effort that got Toronto through.
“I just think we needed to possess the puck a little bit more,” he said, “and get on top of them and be forechecking and not giving them as much time and space. We were on top of them and had our heads up to make plays.”
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