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LEAFS

Auston Matthews sets Leafs rookie goal record in win over Panthers

By Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun

Toronto - 

Auston Matthews has found a place all to himself in the Maple Leafs record book.

And the 2016-17 regular season isn’t over yet.

In a 3-2 Leafs win against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, Matthews scored his 35th goal, setting a Leafs record for most by a rookie in one season.

The previous mark was 34 goals, established by Wendel Clark in 66 games in 1985-86.

“Just to be in the same sentence as a guy like Wendel Clark is a big honour,” Matthews said. “A lot of credit to my linemates all season. It’s definitely pretty special.”

Clark couldn’t have been happier that Matthews shoved him aside.

“It’s good,” Clark said emphatically during the first intermission at the Air Canada Centre. “If we’re going to be any good we need these young guys breaking all this stuff and doing well.”

Matthews beat Panthers goalie James Reimer at 11:54 of the first period on a low shot after taking a pass from Zach Hyman. Fellow freshman William Nylander also assisted on the goal, which gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead.

Leo Komarov also scored for the Leafs in the first period, and Hyman’s fourth shorthanded goal of the season, coming early in the third period, was the winner.

The Leafs improved to 87 points and remain in third place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the Boston Bruins.

The Matthews goal marked the 14th time this season he has opened the scoring, tying the Leafs record set by Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94.

Nylander extended his points streak to 12 games, at the same time extending his Leafs rookie record. It’s also tied for the longest points streak in the NHL this season.

Goaltender Curtis McElhinney, starting as Frederik Andersen recovers from an upper-body injury, was excellent.

Reilly Smith and Jaromir Jagr scored for Florida.

Reimer, who has a concussion history, left the game in the second period after he suffered an upper-body injury in a collision at the side of the net with Leafs centre Brian Boyle. Reto Berra took over.

Clark was asked when he thought his record might be in jeopardy this season. Daniel Marois came close in 1988-89, scoring 31 as a Leafs rookie.

“Second period of the first game,” Clark said, drawing laughter.

Of course, on opening night, Matthews scored four goals against the Ottawa Senators.

That Matthews, the first pick overall in the 2016 NHL draft, has 35 goals and is a favourite to win the Calder Trophy isn’t what impresses Clark most.

“Some of the situations and defensive responsibilities the coach is asking him to do, that is probably more impressive and he’s accepting it with a grin on his face,” Clark said. “Those are the big things when you are talking about what he does, not necessarily the stats, but the other things he is learning as a 19-year-old.”

For coach Mike Babcock, Matthews’ desire to be a complete player has been set in stone since the season’s outset.

“When we met at the start of the year, we made it real clear: You can play on the wing or you can play centre, (and he said), ‘No, I want to play centre, I want to play 200 feet,’ ” Babcock said. “He wants to be the best player in the world up front, so that’s going to be the challenge for us … the more mistakes you make, the more you learn. We’re putting him out there in a lot of key situations.”

Said Matthews: “It was a big point with the coaching staff. There is still room for improvement, but I think it has gone pretty well.”

The goal was Matthews’ 62nd point in 75 games and it put him four off the Leafs rookie points record of 66, set by Peter Ihnacak in 1982-83.

As for actually putting the puck in the net, Clark, who thinks of Mats Sundin when he watches Matthews, made a crucial point.

“Goal-scorers score from everywhere on anything and usually not in places you think,” Clark said. “They are in the net. The pretend goal-scorers are going high top glove all the time. Auston is low, between the legs, blocker side, he is going percentages of what is going to happen.

“He really thinks the game, more about how to get the goal than to be the pretty goal.”

GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD MAKES POLAK HAPPY

Roman Polak was happy to experience something for the first time.

On Tuesday night against the Florida Panthers, it was being told his penalty was not going to be called after all.

Polak was penalized for high-sticking the Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau late in the second period, and visibly was upset.

Replays showed it was the puck that hit Huberdeau in the face, not Polak’s stick. After referees Kevin Pollock and Brian Pochmara met with the linesmen, the penalty was called off and Polak freed from the box.

“After the play I went after the referee and said, ‘Thanks, you didn’t have to do it,’” Polak said. “He’s like, ‘Everybody is making a mistake. If you make a mistake, why not just make it better?’ That’s what they did. It was a classy move by them.”

Panthers coach Tom Rowe, who went bonkers when the call was reversed, changed his tune after the game.

“They made the right call,” Rowe said. “We were frustrated by it. I got a ton of respect for (the officials). They got it right.”