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Kucherov is 5th player in NHL to reach 100 assists as Lighting beat Matthews, Maple Leafs 6-4

By AP | Apr 18, 2024

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov, right, celebrates after assisting on a goal by center Brayden Point, left, during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Tampa, Fla. The assist was Kucherov's 100th of the season. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

By JOHN KREISER Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Auston Matthews came up empty in his bid to become the ninth player in NHL history to score 70 goals in a season, but Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov became the fifth player to have a 100-assist season as the Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 6-4 on Wednesday night.

Matthews was denied on all seven first-period shots by 29-year-old rookie goalie Matt Tomkins, then rocketed a shot off the post midway through the second period. Tomkins finished with 34 saves, including 12 on Matthews, in his sixth NHL start.

“I wanted it, for sure, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” said Matthews, who went scoreless on back-to-back nights against the Florida Panthers and Lightning. “The most important thing is the team and the team’s success, making sure I’m pulling my weight as a leader on this team and help the team win. That’s where my focus is at.”

Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said there’s more to Matthews’ game than putting the puck in the net.

“He’s played so tremendously well,” Keefe said. “I know there’s been a lot of focus on him reaching 70 goals; you kind of lose sight of how well he’s played. The way he’s played these last two games — give him those types of chances and those types of shots, and he could have had 75. It wasn’t meant to be, and that’s OK — 69 is an unbelievable season.”

Kucherov, the NHL’s scoring leader with 144 points, scored a first-period goal, then set up Brayden Point’s power-play goal with 2:55 left in the second for the history-making assist.

“It’s a special moment,” Kucherov said. “Thanks to my teammates and coaching staff for putting me in position to have success. I’m fortunate to play with great players.”

He reached the milestone two days after Edmonton’s Connor McDavid did it.

“It’s incredible … the fifth time and two are this year. It’s remarkable,” Point said. “Just watching Kuch every day and seeing how he works, it’s an amazing number, but it’s not surprising with how hard and how smart he works.”

Nicholas Paul and Anthony Duclair each had a goal and an assist, and Tanner Jeannot also scored for Tampa Bay, which ended an 0-2-1 slide.

Ryan Reaves, TJ Brodie, Pontus Holmberg and John Tavares scored, and Martin Jones finished with 26 saves for Toronto.

Each team is headed to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this weekend on the road against an Atlantic Division rival. The third-place Maple Leafs open in Boston against the second-place Bruins on Saturday, while the fourth-place Lightning, the first wild card in the Eastern Conference, begin their series against the division champion Panthers on Sunday.

The Lightning jumped in front 3:58 into the game when a perfect saucer pass by Duclair set up Paul’s tap-in. It became 2-0 at 6:14 when Kucherov knocked in his own rebound.

Reaves got the Maple Leafs on the board with 6:42 left. But Paul returned the favor to Duclair at 6:37 of the second, setting up his linemate for a shot into a half-empty net and a 3-1 lead.

Point’s goal made it 4-1, and Brandon Hagel scored 52 seconds later for a four-goal lead. Jeannot made it 6-1 at 11:27 of the third period before Brodie, Holmberg and Tavares added late goals for Toronto, but Tomkins denied Matthews’ bid for history.

“To finish with a season like that, the numbers he’s put up, is pretty remarkable,” Keefe said. “The players were really pulling for him; 69 is pretty good, too.”

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