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Maple Leafs scoring marvel Auston Matthews on pace to become rare member of 70-goal club

The offensive artistry of Auston Matthews has reached the point where even hyperbole seems almost plausible.

“Everything he's shooting,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said recently, “is going in the net.”

It sure does feel that way.

With 52 tallies through 56 games, the Toronto Maple Leafs' goal-scoring marvel is on pace to become a rare member of the 70-goal club, joining the ranks of hockey royalty such as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux . Last week at Arizona, where he grew up, Matthews set a record for the fastest U.S.-born player to reach 50 goals in a season (54 games).

“He continues to find body position in the open ice and his timing that way is really elite and something that goes unnoticed," Maple Leafs center John Tavares said. "But his ability to find open space and continue to do it night after night is really impressive.”

No one is near Matthews' 52 goals, with the closest challenger through Sunday being Florida's Sam Reinhart (39). The 26-year-old Matthews has 10 goals and 14 points in the past six games, including a pair of hat tricks.

At this rate, his career high of 60 goals, set two seasons ago, is sure to be surpassed. No active player has reached that mark twice. Accomplish that and the player who's earned the nicknames of “Big Cactus” (you know, being from Arizona) and “Papi” (a nod to his favorite baseball player, David Ortiz) would put himself in select company.

He would become the ninth player to accomplish that double and the first since Pavel Bure scored 60 goals in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons.

It would understandable if Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe took his star player's unique skillset almost for granted. But he doesn't.

“We’re very fortunate to have a player of that caliber on our team,” Keefe said of the No. 1 overall pick in 2016. “Auston leads the way for us in ways that we know and are obvious and show up on the score sheet, but he also leads the way in so many other categories that help set the standard for our team."

A sentiment shared by Toronto forward Max Domi.

“He's so hungry every time he steps on the ice,” Domi said. “He's one of the best if not the best player in the world right now. He's driving the bus right now. Fifty-two goals in however many games he's played is insane, absolutely ridiculous.”

Matthews is in the running to win his second Hart Trophy in three years. According to FanDuel Sportsbook, his odds are currently second-best behind only Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon and just ahead of Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov .

Matthews isn't just an offensive force, blocking 63 shots this season and generating 60 takeaways — both among the league leaders for forwards. He is making a compelling case for the Selke Trophy, too, which is given to the top defensive forward. The only player to be presented both awards in the same season was Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings in 1993-94.

“The guy's stick is unbelievable. He's super responsible defensively, going back for pucks," Maple Leafs defenseman Jake McCabe said. "He plays a complete, 200-foot game. I think that definitely gets overshadowed with the goal scoring.”

Matthews' play has helped the Maple Leafs reel off seven wins in a row, their longest streak since 2003 . It's putting them in the conversation as a possible Stanley Cup threat, which the Leafs infamously haven't won since 1967.

Toronto finally made it to the second round in the last postseason after going one-and-out six years in a row.

“Everyone is just buying in,” forward Tyler Bertuzzi said of Toronto's winning ways that's seen them climb to third in the Atlantic Division behind Boston and Florida. "We’re at a point in the season where we have to turn things on and have a winning mentality, take no games off and have a consistent mentality.”

If Matthews leads the Leafs on a long playoff run, that will have a lot to do with his legacy in hockey-mad Toronto more than any scoring titles. It also will make the four-year, $53 million extension that Matthews received last August to establish him as the NHL's highest-paid player as money well spent.

It would be quite a journey from Scottsdale, Arizona, known far more for its luxurious golf courses than producing potential future hockey Hall of Famers.

“I take a lot of pride in being for where I am from,” Matthews said. “I try to be a role model for kids coming out of Arizona that have that hope and believe that no matter where you play, no matter where you’re from, if you have a dream and stick to it, it’s something you can accomplish.”

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AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl

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