Quick Shifts: The story behind Auston Matthews’ historic goal call
A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. We don’t shoot for rebounds.
1. Riding a 100-foot wave of emotion, Harnarayan Singh walked down from the American Airlines Center play-by-play booth Thursday night and let loose a happy expletive.
“I’m on Cloud 9,” the broadcaster exclaimed as he walked into the Toronto Maple Leafs postgame interview room. His eyes were smiling above his mask. There may have been a bead of sweat or two on his forehead.
“What a game. Is every Leafs game like this?!”
Hockey folks love their clichés; one of them is “next man up.”
The same, we discovered the night Auston Matthews scored 55 (and 56), can apply on the other side of the boards.
With word that Sportsnet’s regular Leafs play-by-play man — the venerable, impeccable Chris Cuthbert — was under the weather, Singh was tagged in last minute.
He rushed to get his COVID test, scrambled to find connecting flights from Alberta to Dallas and back. He touched down near midnight and crammed in research for two teams and two lineups he seldom calls.
Singh was as giddy as a rookie at morning skate. He scooped up insight from Sheldon Keefe and soaked up as much inside info as he could from the beat reporters.
He’d gone viral with his “Bonino-Bonino-Boninooooo!” call in Punjabi. He’d authored a book about his wild and unique ride to the booth.
But this would be his first Maple Leafs call in English, and history was in the offing.
Hoping he would be the soundtrack to history, Singh’s only wish was that Auston Matthews would break the record with a clean goal. (It’s a play-by-play caller’s nightmare to have a monumental goal obscured by goalie interference or a difficult-to-detect deflection.)
Not only did Matthews provide Singh with a moment to accentuate, his overtime encore had the broadcaster on his feet in the booth.
Singh knocked his call out of the park.
Turns out, athletes aren’t the only ones who can step up under pressure.
2. Maple Leafs fans can’t help themselves.
They see how seamlessly Mark Giordano has fit in with lineup, how quickly he has bolstered the D corps, and they wonder if the 38-year-old might evolve into something more than a rental.
Is a contract extension on the impending UFA’s mind? Were those talks even had?
“No,” says Giordano, laughing. “I’m day by day, getting ready for playoffs. I’m not thinking of anything else.”
That doesn’t mean the defenceman isn’t enjoying life as a Leaf. He jumped from a 30th-place expansion outfit to a contender that has gone 7-1-1 since his arrival.
“Coming to this team, I know what my role is — to come in here and play well really, really well defensively. I think the scoring on this team is obviously well-known across the league,” Giordano says.
“So far, so good, and we just got to keep building.”
Giordano says it’s been an easy transition because he knew so many Leafs on a personal level previously from summer skates, charity events and golf tournaments.
The fan’s (pipe?) dream is that Kyle Dubas will pull at the hometown heartstring and convince Giordano to get on the Jason Spezza program: one year at a time on the league minimum.
But the market for 20-minute defenders has spiked.
Much will be determined by how things go in May.
3. When prime Rick Vaive ripped off his three-year run of 50-goal showings — at ages 23, 24, 25 — the Maple Leafs finished fifth, third and fifth in the Norris Division. They never piled more than 28 wins; they made the playoffs once with a losing record and were a first-round snack for the Minnesota North Stars.
“I wish we could’ve been more productive as a team. Everything around the 50-goal seasons would have been a heck of a lot more enjoyable,” Vaive told me.
“That you are playing in the National Hockey League and playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs and you’re [scoring] and you’re the captain, yes, that’s all great. But winning is what you play for. You play for winning a Stanley Cup. That’s your dream when you’re a kid.”
It’s Christmas morning. You’re unwrapping everything on your wish list. Then you glance up and the rest of your family is pulling bruised oranges and coal lumps out of their stockings.
How much fun is that?
Matthews hit 50 in a supercharged revenge match over the Winnipeg Jets. He tied Vaive by hanging a hat trick on the two-time defending champs, and rewrote the book with an overtime stunner in Texas. Big W in Big D.
Reporters covering personal milestones in team sports know the drill.
If an athlete achieves the fantastic but the squad loses, the post-game interviews get sapped of joy: Yeah, it’s nice I scored seven goals and rescued that puppy from a burning building after morning skate. But what really matters is the two points we left on the table. So, I’m leaving with a sour taste.
The night his best player surpassed Vaive and put his stamp on the best individual Leafs season, coach Sheldon Keefe hit the nail on the head.
“The best part of what Auston is doing is that he’s doing so in a winning environment,” Keefe said. “And he’s doing things to help us win games. The goals of course are part of it, but he does so many other things that help us win games and help us carry play.”
Certainly, Vaive would agree. He’d take 49 and a deep run over 65 and extra tee times.
4. On the night Matthews hit 50, he also set a new career high in assists.
In the only two games of his past 15 without a goal, Matthews has four helpers.
Not unlike Phil Kessel before him, Matthews’ elite passing ability is seldom mentioned because he’s such a phenomenal shooter.
His underrated ability as setup man has been enhanced because Mitch Marner is finishing more than ever.
Matthews’ previous high in assists was 36 (in 2018-19). He’s crushing that with 41 and counting.
5. I was excited when Chris Pronger, one of hockey’s more fearless personalities, joined Twitter. I was more excited to see how he’s using it.
Prongers wrote an eye-opening, 17-post thread about the financial realities of pro players and the pitfalls that endanger them. It’s worth reading, just like Broke is worth watching.
6. It’s difficult to tell if the Tampa Bay Lightning — limping into the stretch run with a four-game losing skid — are a wolf in sheep’s clothing or if we are actually witnessing a lesser version.
Knowing they can beat anyone and putting less of an emphasis on regular-season success, the Bolts have the worst head-to-head record (3-5-2) among the four playoff-bound Atlantic powers.
But at this rate, Tampa will draw the No. 1 Metropolitan Division seed in Round 1 anyway. Currently, that would be Carolina’s prize for playing so well.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has lost six of his past nine starts and has posted an uncharacteristic .890 save percentage in April. The absence of Ryan McDonagh has opened a significant hole on the back end, and coach Jon Cooper has been juggling lines to get some mojo going.
Following the 6-2 loss to Toronto at home, Cooper said his group was “way too easy to play against… It was probably like a light practice to them.”
7. This is hilarious by Nikita Kucherov:
8. Fun running into gregarious enforcer Shawn Thornton in Sunrise.
Thornton serves as the Panthers’ chief commercial officer, and his main concern is securing naming rights for a barn that is now on its fifth title.
For now, the Cats play at FLA Live Arena. But that is a placeholder name until Thornton and his group lock up a big sponsor’s logo to slap outside the building.
“Better get one in time for the Stanley Cup final,” I teased. “That’ll be prime real estate.”
Thornton reminded that Florida is hosting the 2023 All-Star Game — a juicy selling point when it comes to the naming rights.
The 44-year-old is happy living out by the everglades. He says he sees alligators all the time. And, no, he’s not afraid of them.
If push came to shove, my money’s on Thornton.
9. My most vivid memory of Ryan Getzlaf is from an otherwise forgettable game in March 2016.
The veteran Ducks were still a decent team, but they were in a funk. They rolled into Toronto to face the upstart Leafs and lost 6-5 in overtime.
The loser point had clinched Anaheim another playoff berth, but when I walked into the visitors’ dressing room post-game, I saw a captain ticked off.
Clearly wanting to be the spokesman, Getzlaf was the only Duck in his stall. You could hear a pin drop as he sat there with a burning intensity and a message.
“We didn’t play a good hockey game tonight,” he said.
“We’re not up to the pace of play. We’re holding onto the puck too long, and we’re giving up four goals, five goals, three… that’s way too many goals against to compete in this league.”
Getzlaf was visibly angry but directed his frustration clearly and fairly. It wasn’t so much the words he used; it was the tone.
He called out his teammates, in general but not by name, that night. He demanded professionalism. Though us media, he instructed them to show up and execute.
Getzlaf always held himself to the highest of standards and demanded the same.
Fierce but measured.
I walked out of the room thinking: Holy crap, that is what a hockey captain sounds like.
10. Fantastic to see some positive momentum in Buffalo just as the Sabres set the record for consecutive playoff whiffs (11 seasons).
They win the Jack Eichel return game. They win the Heritage Classic. They keep some respected veterans at the trade deadline. They have a coach the players and the city believe in. They have a hometown first-liner who wants to be there.
And as of Friday, they have No. 1 pick Owen Power out of college and under contract.
A source who has worked with both 2019 No. 1 Jack Hughes and Power in their developing years says he senses a higher ceiling for the latter: “He’s Hedman. He’s Pietrangelo.”
Power’s NHL debut is tentatively scheduled for Tuesday in Toronto. He grew up in Mississauga.
“I really believe this stretch of games until the end of the season is so critical for him because you feel the NHL game, you get a good understanding of what you need to do to prepare yourself to play, the speed of the game, physicality, all of it,” GM Kevyn Adams told reporters.
“Just the way he’s wired, he’s the type of kid who processes things very quickly, and he’ll learn quickly.”
11. MatthewKnies Watch™ is on.
The Maple Leafs’ blue-chip NCAA prospect scored the Gophers’ beautiful opening goal in the Frozen Four, but with the University of Minnesota eliminated in the semis, Knies’ eventful amateur season is over.
“This [loss] is what’s stuck in my head right now, but this was the best year of my life,” Knies told reporters. “This was the most fun group, and I’m damn proud to be a part of this team.”
Dubas wants to sign him.
Knies will take some time to decide if he wants to stay in school or make the pro leap, like Team USA mate Nick Abruzzese.
With the way things are rolling in Leafland, it must be incredibly tempting to jump onto a guaranteed playoff squad.
12. Philadelphia’s Carter Hart, 23, and New Jersey’s Mackenzie Blackwood, 25, came into the season on Team Canada’s short list of potential Olympic goalies.
Both are ending their seasons with losing records on disappointing lottery-bound teams. By save percentage, their best performances were as rookies in 2018-19.
They seemed like sure bets.
Now, the fate of their individual careers and that of their respective franchises feels tied.
A bounce back in 2022-23 is critical.