Matthews’ masterful marker helps Maple Leafs clip Canadiens to clinch playoffs

Auston Matthews scored his NHL-best 35th goal of the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night to clinch a playoff spot.

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

Spezza is now tied with Canadiens legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard for 99th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 966 career points.

Leafs winger Joe Thornton, who set the record as the oldest player in franchise history to score when he found the back of the net Saturday, helped set up Muzzin’s goal to become just the seventh player in league history to register 1,100 career assists.

Nick Suzuki replied for Montreal (21-18-9), while Jake Allen stopped 25 shots.

WATCH | Matthews displays hand-eye coordination in slick goal:

Toronto beats Montreal 4-1 and becomes the 1st team in the North Division to secure a playoff spot. Auston Matthews scores the winner as he knocks the puck out of mid-air then fires it in for his NHL-leading 35th goal of the season. 0:59

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.

Toronto will now turn its immediate attention towards a two-game series at home beginning Thursday against the Vancouver Canucks, while 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 due to 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 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, the Leafs’ star centre knocked the puck out of mid-air and in the same breath swept his 35th past a surprised Allen.

Matthews now has 17 goals and 28 points in 21 career games against the Canadiens.

Josh 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 home side down by two through 20 minutes.

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

WATCH | Thornton collects milestone helper:

41-year-old Joe Thornton becomes the NHL’s 7th player to record 1,100 assists or more. 1:23

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.

Having scored two goals or fewer in 10-of-12 games since Gallagher was injured April 5, the Canadiens came close later in the period, but Campbell stopped Joel Armia on a breakaway.

Suzuki finally got one back for Montreal — which picked up a crucial two points in Calgary on Monday to provide some much-needed breathing room in the playoff chase — at 15:15 when Suzuki 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.

WATCH | 9 ridiculous McDavid moments from this season… in 90 seconds:

With the shortened season almost over, Rob Pizzo has already run out of spots for jaw-dropping McDavid plays. 2:24

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