Auston Matthews scores in overtime as Leafs beat Jets to halt three-game slide

·5 min read

TORONTO — Auston Matthews clearly isn't at 100 per cent.

Bothered by a troublesome injury to his right wrist and hand, the Maple Leafs' best player has missed three games this season, doesn't have the usual ferocious shot, and sat out practice earlier this week.

Whatever pain he's feeling, it hasn't stopped him producing moments of brilliance.

Matthews scored his league-leading 21st goal of the campaign 59 seconds into overtime Thursday as Toronto defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 to snap a three-game losing streak.

At the end of a long, frantic shift to start an extra period where the Leafs were scrambling to hold on after Morgan Rielly broke his stick, Matthews took a pass from the defenceman heading the other way before selling shot and roofing a backhand on the stellar Connor Hellebuyck.

"Elite talent," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "He's a star. That's what they do."

"Just an incredible goal," Toronto captain John Tavares added. "An incredible set of hands he's got.

"Special player made a special play."

Like the other five skaters on the ice in overtime, Matthews' legs felt heavy as he moved in on Hellebuyck.

"There was a lot of chaos ... it happened so fast," said the 23-year-old, who also added an assist. "We'd been out there for a while, they'd been out there for a while."

Mitch Marner, with a goal and an assist, William Nylander and Ilya Mikheyev scored in regulation for Toronto (19-7-2), while Frederik Andersen made 23 saves for the North Division leaders.

Nikolaj Ehlers, with two goals and an assist, and Paul Stastny replied for Winnipeg (16-8-2), which got 33 stops from Hellebuyck two nights after beating Toronto by the same score ahead of Saturday's finale of this three-game series.

"We did some good things and we have some things to improve on," said the Jets goaltender and reigning Vezina Trophy winner. "I stole a lot of goals tonight.

"I'm happy with my performance and I'm just looking forward to the next one."

Mikheyev broke a 2-2 tie at 12:39 of the third period with his fourth, but the Jets got back even with the extra attacker on when Stastny redirected his eighth home from the slot with 2:26 remaining in regulation.

Joe Thornton had a chance to win it for Toronto with just over a minute left, but Hellebuyck robbed him with the glove before Matthews' heroics halted the Leafs' losing streak.

"It's a big win," Marner said. "We didn't want to let it keep sliding."

Trailing 2-1 despite playing two pretty good periods, the Leafs finally got even at 6:31 of the third when Nylander, who had been denied on three terrific chances by Hellebuyck, fired in his 11th after a great individual effort from Tavares.

"We have a lot of belief in our group," Tavares said of how the Leafs avoided frustration staring down a goalie thwarting them at nearly every turn. "We know the type of talent, the type of team we have.

"It's a 60-minute game for a reason. You keep competing to the end."

Looking for a spark down 1-0 through 20 minutes, Keefe mixed up his lines, including shifting Zach Hyman to the top trio with Marner and Matthews.

That move paid off almost immediately as a grinding shift in the offensive zone with Hyman playing catalyst eventually produced a tap-in for Marner's 11th after T.J. Brodie's point shot that found its way through a maze of players.

Hellebuyck then robbed Hyman on a breakaway move to the backhand a few minutes later with the Leafs buzzing.

"He's been lights out," Matthews said of Hyman's recent play. "You know what to expect from him every night. He's extremely easy to play with because you just know he's going to get in there and battle."

The visitors, however, restored their lead at 10:50 after Leafs defenceman Justin Holl got caught up ice in the offensive zone. Ehlers took a pass from Kyle Connor on the ensuing 2-on-1 and rifled his 13th upstairs on Andersen.

Toronto had a glorious chance to get even, but Hellebuyck stoned Nylander before the winger batted the rebound off the top of the crossbar.

"Bucky played a hell of a game," Ehlers said. "He was absolutely unreal again."

The Jets netminder denied Pierre Engvall on a short-handed break — Toronto's third of the night — on a sequence that resulted in a hooking call. But before the Leafs went on the power play, Hellebuyck once again stymied Nylander with the teams playing 4 on 4.

The Leafs had a terrific opportunity to open the scoring less than two minutes into the first, but Hellebuyck was there to deny Nylander's move to the backhand on a breakaway with his right pad.

Winnipeg's puck stopper held the fort as Toronto pushed with a couple more good chances as the period wore before Ehlers put the Jets in front with 3:41 left when he picked the top corner off the rush.

"He played really well," Matthews said of Hellebuyck. "You've got to tip your hat to him. He made some incredible saves.

"He came up big, but proud of the way everybody stuck with it."

Notes: Thornton played the 1,652nd regular-season game of his career to tie Mark Recchi for sixth on the NHL's all-time list. ... The Jets placed defenceman Nathan Beaulieu on injured reserve after he took a shot off the hand Tuesday. Logan Stanley dressed in his place.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press