TORONTO (AP) — Wendel Clark knew his record might be in jeopardy a little more than 20 minutes into Auston Matthews’s first game with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Matthews became the first player in NHL history to score four goals in a debut that October night against Ottawa and on Tuesday broke Clark’s 31-year-old franchise rookie record with his 35th goal this season — the opening goal in the Leafs’ 3-2 win over Florida.
“It’s good,” Clark said of Matthews shattering a record set during the 1985-86 season. “If we’re going to be any good we need these young guys breaking all (these records) and doing well.”
Matthews and Toronto’s rookies have been setting records more and more often in recent weeks as they drive toward a hopeful playoff berth.
Tuesday’s victory over the Florida Panthers kept the club one point up (87 points) on Boston (86) for third in the Atlantic Division and four up on the surging Tampa Bay Lightning (83).
A game that looked to be all about the Leafs uncertain crease ultimately belonged to the 19-year-old Matthews, who joined Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby as the only rookies since the 1995-96 season to score 35 goals.
Zach Hyman instigated the goal 12 minutes into the first period, controlling the puck from behind the Florida goal before finding Matthews in front, his shot slipping between the pads of James Reimer to top Clark for the franchise mark.
“Just to be in the same sentence as a guy like Wendel Clark is obviously a big honor,” said Matthews, who became the first Leaf since Clark to be picked first overall last June.
Now a community representative of the Leafs, Clark compared the big American center to former Toronto captain and franchise leading scorer, Mats Sundin. Just like Sundin, Clark said, Matthews could be dangerous all by himself, but also gifted in finding teammates for open looks.
He said Matthews had a “goal-scorer’s touch” and the “hands of a little guy” and aimed to score in areas of the highest percentages, such as low, between the legs or blocker-side.
Clark added of Matthews: “He’s already big and strong at 19 and two, three years from now he’s going to be bigger and stronger once he fills out.”
Matthews also increased his NHL lead for game-opening goals — with 14 on the season — and pulled within four points of Peter Ihnacak’s franchise rookie mark for points (66), set during the 1982-83 season.
Rookies have been adding their names to the Leafs record book in increasing fashion.
Mitch Marner recently tied Gus Bodnar’s franchise rookie mark for assists (40), William Nylander matching team rookie records for power-play goals (nine) and power-play points (25) while also establishing a rookie mark for the team with a point streak that was extended to 12 games on Tuesday night.
“Listen, they got a great team,” Panthers coach Tom Rowe said. “They’ve got a lot of speed and I thought once we got going in the second and third we were fine. … It was a good game. They’ve got a good team. We like a lot of their kids. They’ve got some great speed and skill and it’s a fun team to play against.”
Goaltending was the focus in the pregame build-up with Curtis McElhinney starting in place of injured No. 1 Frederik Andersen, who was nursing an undisclosed injury after getting bumped in the head last weekend.
Oddly enough, it was Reimer, the former Leaf, who was forced to leave Tuesday’s game when he was bumped in similar fashion by Brian Boyle midway through the second, replaced by Reto Berra.
McElhinney managed to hold his own in Andersen’s place at the other end, yielding two goals on 27 shots while shining early in the third period as the Leafs protected a 2-1 lead.
Hyman eventually increased Toronto’s lead to two short-handed — Leo Komarov had the Leafs’ second goal.
Jaromir Jagr scored late in regulation for Florida.
Hyman became the fifth Leafs rookie to score at least 10 goals this season.
An already interesting night also saw Roman Polak called for high-sticking Jonathan Huberdeau and then pulled out of the box when replays showed it was a puck — and not the stick — which struck the Panthers winger.
Polak said he’d never seen such a thing and thanked the referee afterward for admitting his mistake.
The night was all about Matthews in the end though. He took over the top spot among all NHL rookies in goals and points, a favorite to become the first Leaf since Brit Selby in 1966 to win the Calder Trophy.
“It’s obviously good and nice for him, but he needs to remember he’s got many years in front of him so he just needs to keep going,” Komarov said.
Panthers: Head to Montreal to face the Canadiens on Thursday night.
Maple Leafs: Head to Nashville to face the Predators on Thursday night.
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