MONTREAL (AP)Auston Matthews got his NHL-best 35th goal of the season and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night to clinch a playoff spot.
William Nylander, Jake Muzzin and Adam Brooks also scored for Toronto, and Morgan Rielly and Jason Spezza each had two assists. Jack Campbell had 32 saves as the North Division-leading Maple Leafs beat the Canadiens for the fifth time in seven meetings this season.
Spezza is now tied with Canadiens legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard for 99th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 966 points. Joe Thornton helped set up Muzzin’s goal to become just the seventh player in league history to register 1,100 career assists.
”We’re playing with a couple living legends,” the 23-year-old Matthews 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.”
Maple Leafs 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.”
Nick Suzuki scored for Montreal and Jake Allen stopped 25 shots.
”There’s just no excuses,” Montreal forward 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 Maple Leafs and the fourth-place Canadiens – set to go head-to-head three more times – look poised to meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1979.
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 at the lip of Allen’s crease for his 15th goal of the season.
Playing their 16th game in 28 days because of schedule changes due to COVID-19, the Canadiens had trouble finding their legs early and 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, Matthews knocked the puck out of the 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.”
Anderson had a chance at the other end to cut the lead in half, but fired wide with Campbell caught out of position before Allen denied Matthews on a breakaway to keep the Canadiens down by two through 20 minutes.
Coming off a two-game sweep in Winnipeg after an 0-3-2 run, the Maple Leafs made it 3-0 at 6:27 of the second when Muzzin’s point shot went off the stick on Canadiens defenseman John Merrill, who was battling in front with Thornton, for his third of the campaign.
The Canadiens came close later in the period, but Campbell stopped Joel Armia on a breakaway.
Suzuki finally got one back for Montreal at 15:15 when he was given too much room off the rush and fired through a screen off the post and in for his 10th.
The Canadiens got a power play five minutes into the third, but were unable to generate much, with rookie Cole Caufield double-clutching on the best chance in his second NHL game.
Toronto put the game out of reach at 8:15 when Spezza stole the puck from Allen behind Montreal’s net and fed Brooks 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.
”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.”
Maple Leafs captain John Tavares saw his point streak end at eight games.
1,100 ASSIST CLUB
Thornton 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.
”That’s a lot of hours playing street hockey with my brothers,” Thornton said.
Already without forward Brendan Gallagher (broken thumb) and No. 1 goalie Carey Price (concussion), the Canadiens announced forward Jonathan Drouin is taking an indefinite leave of absence due to personal reasons. Drouin, 26, was placed on long-term injured reserve after missing Montreal’s last three contests prior to Wednesday with an illness unrelated to COVID-19.
Maple Leafs: Host Vancouver on Thursday night to open two-game series.
Canadiens: Hosts Winnipeg on Friday night.