“There have been times when he could barely hold onto his stick”: Auston Matthews is running away with the Rocket Richard despite playing through injury

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Auston Matthews at the 2019 All Star Game
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

An excellent piece by NHL.com’s Mike Zeisberger shed light on the wrist ailment Auston Matthews has been dealing with for most of the season as he’s piled up goals at a historic pace.

According to Matthews’ father, Brian, the injury has been more than just a minor nuisance to play through.

“This has been a hard season, much harder than I think people realize. There were times that he was playing he could barely hold on to his stick. We tried all kinds of different knobs, and everything else.

“It’s not so much that you got knocked down, it’s what are you going to do, how are you going to get off the mat, how are you going to respond? And Auston has really taken that to heart.”

– Brian Matthews on Matthews’ wrist condition, NHL.com

Matthews now has 18 goals in his last 18 games, a tear that followed his slowest stretch of the season goal-scoring-wise (“just” three goals in 10 games) when he first came back from a few days of rest due to a wrist flareup. This lights-out stretch over the past 18 games means that even if Matthews didn’t score another goal this season, Connor McDavid would need nine goals in his final five games to pass him in the Rocket Richard race.

Despite operating at less than full power with his shot, Matthews’ goal-scoring genius is such that he’s only become more inventive in the way he is putting pucks into the net game after game. He has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and score new varieties of goals, be it wraparounds or tips/deflections.

Greater recognition of and commitment to using the physical advantages his 6’3, 225-pound frame affords him in puck battles down low and around the goal line/net, in addition to improved conditioning (at a lighter playing weight, per Zeisberg’s article), has allowed Matthews to play more minutes and get more out of those minutes. The commitment to using his elite hockey sense and physical gifts to dominate the game without the puck has also allowed him to spend even more time on offense — the Leafs have owned more of the shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals with Matthews on the ice than in any of his previous NHL seasons.

The philosophy from the coaching staff of turning Matthews loose hasn’t hurt his cause, either. His ice time ticked up two-plus minutes a game on average when Sheldon Keefe took over the Leafs’ bench in November 2019, and he’s scored 72 goals in 95 games since that time — far and away the most in the NHL (13 goals more than Mika Zibanejad, 15 more than Alex Ovechkin).

The consistent pairing of one of the league’s best playmakers with its best goal scorer has also played its part — in the 48 games they’ve played together this season, Matthews and Mitch Marner have shared more 5v5 ice time (703 out of 807 5v5 minutes, or 87% of total TOI) than they had in the previous three years combined (696 of 2403 minutes, or 29% of total TOI). Marner has primary assists on 18 of Matthews’ 39 goals, and secondary assists on six others.

It’s an oversimplification to attribute the team’s power-play slippage to Matthews’ wrist injury alone, but what’s interesting is how we can pretty closely line up the worsening of the injury with when the team’s man-advantage efficiency fell off of a cliff. Since the team’s sweep of the Oilers in late February (Matthews missed two of those three games), it’s gone 5 for its last 65 — a 7.7% success rate — after clicking at 32.5% in the first 24 games.

You can’t help but wonder if a fully healthy Matthews, one that wasn’t forced to pass up on some of the looks he normally would’ve seized on in the initial weeks after returning from his time off, would’ve prevented this nose dive on the man-advantage unit from occurring in the first place to the point where the confidence level of the units never would have taken such a fall.

That the power play has been so badly underperforming while Matthews is in the midst of such a mind-boggling stretch of form is also a testament to how dominant he has been at even-strength goal scoring, which is, of course, the hardest thing to do in the NHL. 16 of Matthews’ last 18 goals have come at even strength, five of which are game-winners.

Here are a few more eye-popping Matthews stats:

  • Matthews is currently scoring .81 goals per game, and if it were to hold, he would be the only player not named Mario Lemieux to lead the NHL in goals and finish above the .80 goals-per-game mark since 1985-86. Ovechkin’s best ever was .79 in 2007-08.
  • Matthews has scored 12 game-winning goals, a single-season franchise record, and he accomplished it in just 47 games.
  • Matthews leads the league in 2020-21 with nine multi-goal games in 48 appearances.
  • Matthews became the first American-born player in league history to score 30 or more goals in each of his first five seasons.
  • Among active players, Matthews tied Steven Stamkos (2010-11) for the third-fewest games to reach the 30-goal mark, behind only Sidney Crosby (2010-11, 37 GP) Alex Ovechkin (2013-14, 34 GP).
  • With 21 goals in his first 23 career games against the Senators, Matthews tied Darryl Sutter for the fewest games played to reach 20 goals versus a single opponent.
  • Matthews also has points in all eight games versus the Habs – 12 total, which ties Tomas Kaberle’s franchise record for most points vs. Montreal in a single season. The Leafs play the Canadiens twice more before the season is through.
  • Matthews’ 175 goals in his first 300 career games is 40 goals more than both Mats Sundin and Wendel Clark in their first 300.
  • Matthews’ eight-game goal streak in late January-early February was tied for the third-longest since 1995-96 behind only Jaromir Jagr (1996-97, 9) and Teemu Selanne (1997-98, 11).

Drink it in, Leafs fans. You’re witnessing all-time greatness.