Auston Matthews’ career year gives Maple Leafs playoff hopes

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.”

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    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

    Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

    Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

    They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

    “We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

    Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

    With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

    “Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

    The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

    METROPOLITAN DIVISION

    The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

    “This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

    The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

    “Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

    They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

    “I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

    ATLANTIC

    The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

    The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

    But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

    “You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

    The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

    CENTRAL

    Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

    “It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

    They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

    “Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

    PACIFIC

    Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

    The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

    Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

    “It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

    Capitals sign Sonny Milano to 3-year, $5.7 million extension

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
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    ARLINGTON, Va. — The Washington Capitals signed winger Sonny Milano to a three-year extension worth $5.7 million.

    General manager Brian MacLellan announced the contract, adding to an already busy All-Star break for taking care of future business. The Capitals extended forward Dylan Strome for five years, $25 million.

    Like Strome, Milano has fit in as a new addition for Washington. He’s now set to count $1.9 million against the salary cap through the 2025-26 season.

    The 26-year-old Milano has been a near-perfect bargain signing for the Capitals after joining them on an NHL veteran one-year deal after this season got underway. He has eight goals and 14 assists for 22 points in 40 games since getting called up from Hershey of the American Hockey League.

    Originally drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets 16th in 2014, Milano split his first eight seasons in the league with them and the Anaheim Ducks. He went unsigned as an unrestricted free agent last summer despite putting up 34 points in 66 games with Anaheim.