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Matthews scores 35th, Thornton and Spezza hit milestones as Leafs clinch playoff spot

MONTREAL — Auston Matthews didn't offer much insight about a lightning-quick flick of the wrists that inched him closer to his first Rocket Richard Trophy.

MONTREAL — Auston Matthews didn't offer much insight about a lightning-quick flick of the wrists that inched him closer to his first Rocket Richard Trophy.

When the topic switched to a pair of veteran teammates happily grinding away in search of an elusive Stanley Cup, the Maple Leafs sniper flashed a wide grin and had plenty to say.

Matthews scored his NHL-best 35th goal of the season, Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza hit impressive personal milestones, and Toronto defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday, becoming the first North Division team to clinch a playoff spot.

"We're playing with a couple living legends," Matthews, 23, said of Thornton, 41, and Spezza, 37. "It's pretty awesome at this stage of their career how passionate they are about the team, about winning, about performing every night."

In recent weeks, that's come as part of a dependable, no-nonsense fourth line with rookie Adam Brooks. 

And on this night, the pair hit numbers rarely seen.

Thornton picked up an assist to become just the seventh player in NHL history to reach the 1,100 mark, while Spezza set up two goals to tie Maurice (Rocket) Richard — Matthews is closing in on the trophy that bears the Canadiens legend's name — for 99th all-time in scoring with 966 career points.

"That's a lot of hours playing street hockey with my brothers," Thornton said.

"Pretty elite company," Spezza said of equalling Richard. "He was quite a bit better than I am, but still pretty neat to do it here.

"To be even in the same breath as a guy like that is pretty cool."

Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, whose NHL career was cut short by injury, said there was a moment Wednesday where he was able to soak up Thornton and Spezza snapping the puck around the offensive zone as fourth liners.

"Those guys have accomplished a great deal," Keefe said. "They've been elite, elite players for a very long time. To have them teaming up for us in that role and being such great leaders for us, it's outstanding. Very cool for them to have their own moments. 

"I was telling Joe I don't think I touched the puck 1,100 times in my time in the NHL."

Brooks, William Nylander and Jake Muzzin provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (31-13-5), which got 32 saves from Jack Campbell. Morgan Rielly also had two assists as the division leaders improved to 5-2-0 against their Original Six rivals in 2021.

Nick Suzuki replied for Montreal (21-18-9). Jake Allen stopped 25 shots for the Canadiens, who were coming off a five-game road trip through Alberta and never really got out of second gear.

"There's just no excuses," Montreal winger Josh Anderson said. "Yea, we got back from out west on that road trip, but they looked pretty flat tonight.

"We made it an easy hockey game for them." 

The Leafs and fourth-place Canadiens — set to go head-to-head three more times before the end of the regular season — look poised to meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1979.

"Step 1's done," Thornton said of the Leafs clinching a spot in the post-season dance.

Toronto will now turn its immediate attention towards a two-game series at home beginning Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks. Montreal, which remains six points up on the Calgary Flames for the North's final post-season berth, hosts the Winnipeg Jets on Friday before the Ottawa Senators come to town Saturday.

Already without winger Brendan Gallagher (broken thumb) and No. 1 goalie Carey Price (concussion), the Canadiens announced before Wednesday's game forward Jonathan Drouin is taking an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons.

Toronto took a 1-0 lead just 1:38 into the first period on a power play when Nylander finished off a pretty passing sequence for his 15th goal.

Playing their 16th game in 28 days because of schedule changes due to COVID-19, the Canadiens were made to pay again at 8:44 on an incredible individual effort by Matthews.

After linemate Nick Foligno threw a pass into the middle that bounced off Suzuki, the Leafs' star centre knocked the puck out of mid-air and in the same breath swept his 35th past a surprised Allen.

"Elite of the elite," Thornton said of Matthews, who now has 17 goals and 28 points in 21 career games against the Canadiens. "His release is incredible."

"What a treat to watch," Campbell added. "Just a little glimpse of what we get to see everyday."

Coming off a two-game sweep in Winnipeg following an 0-3-2 run, the Leafs made it 3-0 at 6:27 of the second when Muzzin's point shot went in off the stick on Canadiens defenceman John Merrill, who was battling in front with Thornton, for his third of the campaign.

Thornton, who became the oldest Leaf to ever score a goal Saturday, joined Wayne Gretzky (1,963), Ron Francis (1,249), Mark Messier (1,193), Ray Bourque (1,169), Jaromir Jagr (1,155) and Paul Coffey (1,135) as the only players in NHL history to crack 1,100 assists.

Campbell said he sometimes has to pinch himself after chatting with Thornton and Spezza.

"You're in awe," the goaltender said after improving to 14-2-1. "You're having a coffee with Jumbo or Spezz. I find myself chuckling in the car after practice. I'm like, 'Wow, Jumbo and Spezz are my buddies. It's pretty cool.'

Having scored two goals or fewer in 10 of 12 games since Gallagher was injured April 5, Montreal got on the board at 15:15 when Suzuki fired through a screen off the post and in for his 10th.

But Toronto put the game out of reach at 8:15 of the third when Spezza stole the puck from Allen and fed the 24-year-old Brooks, whose road to the NHL was a lot longer than his veteran linemates, in front for his third. Spezza's 966 points have come in 1,170 games, while Richard put up the same number in 978 contests.

But records like the ones he and Thornton reached Wednesday are things they'll look back on further down the road.

For now, it's about pushing forward with a post-season spot secured.

"The focus the rest of the way is just keep playing good hockey," Spezza said. "It's really important for us to keep our identity, keep working on things."

And the rest of the roster need look no further than the two veterans at the bottom of the lineup helping lead the way.

"It truly is incredibly special," Campbell said. "Not only are they historic hockey players.

"But they're historic teammates."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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