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Auston Matthews is keeping the Toronto Maple Leafs in the hunt

The big, gifted center has been on a hot streak of late, right when the banged-up squad needed him most. If this Toronto team is going to grab hold of a playoff spot, Matthews must continue to be a leading light.

Toronto’s lineup is not ideal right now. Starting goaltender Frederik Andersen is out with a neck injury, while top defenseman Morgan Rielly is on the shelf long-term with a fractured foot – and the blueline was already a weak spot.

And yet, the Maple Leafs are still in the mix for a playoff spot in what has been an incredibly tumultuous season. One reason for that? The life preserver that is Auston Matthews.

The dominating center has nine goals and 14 points in his past 10 games, helping the Leafs stay in the hunt with a 5-3-2 record despite a rough schedule that saw Toronto play four games in six nights.

During that span, Matthews hit the 40-goal mark for the second time in his short career – but this time he still has 26 more games in which to add to that total. Based on his play this season, 50 seems like a cakewalk, but 60 is not outside the realm of possibility, either.

“There’s arguably no better shooter, with the type of shot he has,” said teammate John Tavares. “So when you’re out there with him and he has any time and space in any kind of area in the offensive zone, you want to get the puck to him.”

Naturally, the mission is to secure a playoff spot, but Matthews was also able to reflect on the accomplishment of hitting 40 goals for the first time since his Calder Trophy-winning campaign as a rookie back in 2016-17.

“It means a lot,” Matthews said. “I’ve been fortunate to play with some really great players. On any given night, you look up and down the lineup and we’ve got great skill; it doesn’t matter who you play with. It’s a big tribute to the guys I play with every night.”

His recent run has also kept Matthews in the hunt for the Rocket Richard Trophy, which has basically lived in Alex Ovechkin’s house for the past decade or so. Ovechkin has two games in hand on Matthews, but they are tied right now and it’s funny to think now that some questioned whether the Maple Leafs should have taken Matthews over Patrik Laine in the 2016 draft.

While Laine has definitely been the sniper the Winnipeg Jets thought they were getting with the second overall pick, Matthews has actually surpassed the Finnish right winger in that category.

Not only does Matthews lead all 2016 draft picks in career NHL goals right now with 151, but he has done it in 268 games, while Laine is second with 134 tallies in 292 appearances. Injuries have put Matthews behind Laine in games played, but that only makes the Toronto center’s development all the more enticing. This is the first time since he was a rookie that we’re getting to see the completely unfettered Matthews experience and it is certainly a highlight-reel show.

Now, the Art Ross Trophy is pretty much out of the question thanks to those Edmonton boys (and side note: is Leon Draisaitl gonna take the crown instead of Connor McDavid? He is four points up on the captain right now), but Matthews is on pace to hit 100 points for the first time in his career and that’s not an easy thing to do in today’s NHL. Heck, no member of the Maple Leafs has hit the mark since 1993-94 when Doug Gilmour had 111.

And the Leafs know that Matthews is in the zone right now.

“He’s locked in right now, playing like an MVP,” Tavares said. “He’s such a catalyst for us.”

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