Matthews enjoys happy homecoming as Maple Leafs beat Coyotes

Dec 28, 2017, 10:47 PM
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his goal against the Arizona Coyotes wit...

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his goal against the Arizona Coyotes with Maple Leafs' William Nylander (29) and Zach Hyman (11) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Auston Matthews must have considerable pull with the NHL schedule makers. For the third straight season, the Maple Leafs’ game in Arizona fell at one end of the three-day holiday break, affording the second-year Toronto center a chance to spend some extra time at home.

Last season, the Maple Leafs played at Gila River Arena on Dec. 23 and Matthews just went home to Scottsdale after the game to start his break. This season, he flew back to Arizona after the Leafs’ game against the New York Rangers on Saturday and joined his team for practice on Wednesday before Thursday’s game against the Coyotes.

“I love coming back so I lucked out pretty well, last year and this year, being able to spend Christmas here at home,” Matthews said. “It’s nice just to be around the family, kind of get away from hockey for a couple days, not have to think about it and just kind of recharge the batteries.”

Thursday was Matthews’ second game at Gila River Arena, but he felt at home with family, friends and lots of Leafs fans cheering him on from a suite he rented. Matthews scored his first goal in Arizona and six players scored for Toronto in the Maple Leafs’ 7-4 win over the Coyotes.

“It was a great feeling,” said Matthews who was swarmed by at least 30 family members and friends wearing Matthews jerseys outside the Maple Leafs locker room after the game. “Definitely one I’ll remember. A pretty special goal.”

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet had a bad feeling Matthews would be doubly motivated on Thursday after the Coyotes beat Toronto, 4-1, at Air Canada Centre on Nov. 20. Matthews had no points in that game and he was a minus-2, his worst plus-minus rating of the season.

That game aside, there is plenty in Matthews’ game for Tocchet to admire.

“He’s already a man,” Tocchet said. “Everybody has talent and skill but for me, I love it when he goes into the corners. I’m a corner guy, I always will be.

“He holds onto pucks, he wins puck battles, he comes out of the corner with it. If you’re a talented guy and you can also do that then you’re a special player and that’s why he could be, on some nights the best player in the league.”

In 28 games this season, Matthews has 15 goals and 29 points. He is on pace to eclipse last season’s 69-point rookie season when he won the Calder Trophy. The white-hot spotlight of the Toronto hockey market clearly hasn’t impacted him.

“I think I’ve got some good people around me, around the team, management staff. I think they kind of lift some weight off our shoulders, young guys, especially coming into a market this big and so passionate about hockey,” he said. “Sometimes you just need to take a step back and realize we’re all kids, we’re at the very beginning of our NHL careers and we just want to have fun and everything kind of going on around you, it’s just white noise. You don’t want to listen to it or get into it too much.”

Matthews has franchise-altering talent and that is hard to replicate, but his work ethic, will to win and attention to detail are characteristics Tocchet would love to see more of in his team.

The Coyotes were playing the second game of a back-to-back set while Toronto had been off for five days, but Arizona committed key mistakes that cost it against the highly-skilled Leafs.

Zach Hyman made it 1-0 at 8:55 of the first period when he stole a flubbed pass from Coyotes forward Derek Stepan and beat goalie Scott Wedgwood to the glove side on a breakaway for Toronto’s second shorthanded goal of the season.

Matthews made it 2-0 at 10:58 when he beat Wedgewood high to the glove side for his 15th goal of the season. The crowd at Gila River Arena exploded after the goal, with both Coyotes and Maple Leafs fans cheering Matthews.

After Mitch Marner made it 3-0, the Coyotes cut the lead to 3-2 on Josh Archibald’s first goal of the season and Brendan Perlini’s ninth, but the Coyotes wasted a 5-on-3 power play opportunity for 1:44. Arizona is 0-for-11 in that situation this season.

“The 5-on-3, we haven’t been good all year,” Tocchet said. “I think it’s a mental thing right now. Power play is instinctive. You’ve got to make the right play. You’ve just got to make a play. You’re not looking for a home run play.”

Marleau made the Coyotes pay at 9:15 of the second period when he scored on a power play to make it 4-2. Nylander broke the Coyotes’ backs at 15:13 of the second period when he stripped Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the puck at the Coyotes blue line, went in alone and beat Wedgewood to make it 5-2.

“I don’t have an answer for you,” Tocchet said. “We were fine and a couple individuals made blatant mistakes.”

After the game, Coyotes forward Jordan Martinook summed up the frustration permeating his team, which is 2-8-1 in its past 11 games.

“I’m running out of words to say what the problem is,” Martinook said. “We’re such a fragile group when something bad happens to us.”

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Matthews enjoys happy homecoming as Maple Leafs beat Coyotes