Auston Matthews’ goal-a-game pace has lifted the Leafs — and his MVP chances

Auston Matthews has joined the conversation for the Hart Trophy.

The Maple Leafs centre has taken off lately, with 15 goals in his last 15 games and 31 overall this season. He’s on the ice when it matters the most and has scored three times with the net empty and the Leafs desperately trying to get at least a point.

“The way he’s been playing has been like an MVP,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “He keeps coming up huge for us. Obviously, he drives play and when he gets his opportunities, he knows how to put them in.”

In addition to scoring late against Winnipeg on Wednesday to force overtime and get the Leafs a point, Matthews scored at 19:07 against New York on Dec. 28, forcing OT in a 5-4 loss. He did it earlier in the season, too, with a goal at 18:45 against Montreal in a 6-5 shootout loss.

Those were three points the Leafs might not have had otherwise.

“It’s incredible the way he’s able to control the game sometimes,” defenceman Tyson Barrie said. “His shot is world-class. We see it all the time now, he’s making big plays in big moments in the game, too, which is huge.

“He’s a special player and he’s on top of his game. It’s fun to be a part of.”

It is barely halfway through the season, so there is plenty of time for the other Hart candidates to shine. Connor McDavid did so in Toronto earlier in the week, and will probably be the favourite for the award. Evgeni Malkin has kept the Penguins going with Sidney Crosby out. The contributions of David Pastrnak in Boston and Nathan MacKinnon in Colorado should not be overlooked. But Matthews has forced his way into the conversation.

Matthews has scored at least 30 goals in each of his first four seasons. No Maple Leaf has ever done that. Only 15 in the NHL ever have. And the only other active one to have done it is Alex Ovechkin. With 31 goals, Matthews was one back of Pastrnak, the league leader, heading into Thursday’s games.

“A big part of that is getting into a rhythm,” he said.

Matthews had been pumped for the start of the season, having worked on his shot all summer, trying to add a one-timer — which he used on that late goal against Winnipeg — to his arsenal.

“You try to work on it all the time in practice,” he said. “Try to pick different spots, try different shots and actually (goalie Frederik Andersen) is a pretty tough guy to try to score on. So it’s fun going up against him. I like scoring on him in practice, trying to pick different spots or different areas on the ice to shoot it.”

Of course the season didn’t start the way Matthews or any of his teammates wanted. The team struggled out of the gate, and he dealt with legal issues surrounding an incident with a female security guard in Arizona in May. He apologized for that.

The team’s losing ways ended when Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock, and all seems rosy with Matthews these days. He is getting a chance to play with Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman, and the chemistry between Matthews, the finisher, and Marner, the playmaker, is obvious. And Keefe uses him more than Babcock did. Matthews averaged 19:50 of ice time under the old coach. With Keefe, that number has risen to 20:42. That could go higher as the coach fights the instinct to play him even more.

“I just try and manage it, trying to not have others sitting for too long, but also trying to keep his rhythm and keep him going,” Keefe said. “TV timeouts, when you see him get a breather and you sense that he’s ready to go … it’s hard not to put him back out.”

Matthews was probably the most consistent forward under Babcock, with 14 goals in 23 games. He’s taken another step under Keefe, with 17 goals in 22.

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“I want to be out there as much as possible,” Matthews said. “Sheldon has a pretty good gauge for it, by our body language on the bench, for when we’re ready to go back out. He plays us accordingly. I’ve felt pretty good since he’s come in. I feel like I’ve been playing a lot more.”

Notes: Andreas Johnsson (broken ankle) will accompany the team on its one-game trip to Florida. Trevor Moore (concussion) and Jake Muzzin (broken foot) will not … Morgan Rielly did not participate in Thursday’s outdoor practice. Frederik Andersen worked out at the Scotiabank Arena in the morning and watched the outdoor event.