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Auston Matthews described scoring in the playoffs like feeling “an earthquake in your feet” following his winner in Game 3 of Toronto’s series with the Boston Bruins.
Unfortunately for the Maple Leafs and their star centre, there wouldn’t be any aftershocks.
Matthews could only muster that one goal to go along with a solitary assist as the Leafs fell in seven games to the battle-tested Bruins in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Toronto fought back from a 3-1 deficit in a series that started off with embarrassing 5-1 and 7-3 losses in Games 1 and 2 before blowing a 4-3 lead in the third period of Wednesday’s 7-4 defeat in Game 7.
Asked to assess his overall play in a quickly-emptying Leafs’ locker room following his team’s elimination, Matthews was blunt.
“I thought the first half of the series probably wasn’t good enough,” the 20-year said. “The (second) half of the series, had chances. I thought I did things right for the most part and couldn’t capitalize on the opportunities. Sometimes that happens. That’s the way it goes.
“You always want to contribute on the scoresheet. It’s frustrating.”
That frustration can be borne out simply by looking at the numbers.
Matthews directed 27 pucks on goal against Boston — tied for fourth in the entire first round — but had a shooting percentage of just 3.7 over the seven games. He also saw eight more of his shots blocked, while 10 missed the net.
Compare that to the regular season where Matthews had an shooting percentage of 18.2, scoring 34 times despite missing 20 games through injury.
While the stats suggest he was unlucky in the series, the former No. 1 pick received extra attention from the Bruins, with Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy deploying centre Patrice Bergeron and hulking defenceman Zdeno Chara as much as possible when Matthews was on the ice.
The line of Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand not only kept Matthews and his linemates off board in the first two games, they also put up 20 combined points in successive routs.
Fellow youngster Mitch Marner had two goals and seven assists to lead Toronto in the series, but the Bruins still focused on Matthews, who had four goals and an assist in the Leafs’ six-game loss to Washington in last springs’s first round.
“The bottom line is the league is a real good league and when you’re a real good player, you play against the best players who check you the hardest,” Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. “They’ve got the scouting report on you, they work hard. That’s just the way it is. Part of your growth process is learning to fight through that.
“These other teams are competing and they want to win too … Bergeron and Marchand and Chara and these guys, they’re dialled in to play against you so you’ve got to find a way to get to the next level.”
While the Leafs were disappointed to crash out in the first round after setting franchise highs for points (105) and wins (49), they took a step forward after squeaking into the playoffs last season ahead of schedule in their rebuild.
But that doesn’t make the loss to the Bruins any less painful.
“These are the moments we hope to be in in the future,” Matthews said. “We have to find a way to make the most of it.”
Babcock said he hopes Matthews learns some lessons from the series.
“Some of these hard knocks are a growth opportunity for you in life because you’ve got to embrace it,” the coach said. “You’ve got to dig in and you’ve got to grow your craft in the off-season.”