While Auston Matthews has been busy pumping in a league-leading 18 goals through 20 games this season, the Maple Leafs’ star has also been quietly battling a hand injury that was aggravated again in Wednesday’s 2-1 overtime win over Calgary.
Matthews still stayed in for Toronto until the very end, and even assisted on both William Nylander‘s game-tying goal and overtime winner.
“That just speaks to the fact that he’s remained resilient and hasn’t allowed little things like that [hand problem] to disrupt him,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe on a Zoom call following practice on Friday.
“He got banged up there in the second period, and while he had to adapt his game and I had to adapt how we used him a little bit, he still competed his [butt] off right to the very end. That’s a good sign for the fact we feel the injury isn’t something that’s going to slow him down too much here.”
Officially, Matthews is listed as day-to-day and did not participate in Friday’s on-ice session before the Leafs head west for a five-game road swing against Edmonton and Vancouver.
Keefe said Matthews is not ruled out for their first of three meetings against the Oilers on Saturday, and will be a game-time decision.
The 23-year-old previously missed one game for Toronto on Jan. 22 – also against Edmonton – when his hand first became an issue. He returned to pocket 16 goals and 26 points in the 15 games since.
During Wednesday’s tilt against the Flames, Matthews was sent into the boards by defenceman Rasmus Andersson in the second period and had his wrist taped up on the bench before play continued.
The state of his hand kept Matthews from taking many faceoffs for Toronto down the stretch, and he didn’t start in overtime because Keefe said Matthews wasn’t confident taking the defensive-zone draw (the centre did win eight of the 12 faceoffs he took on the night).
Matthews was out for the Leafs’ second overtime shift though, and created space for Nylander to roof the winner over David Rittich.
“He’s a tough customer; we’re lucky to have him on our side,” said goaltender Jack Campbell of Matthews. “Whatever he’s going through, he always gives the team 100 per cent and it’s incredible what he’s able to do, whether he’s 100 per cent or not so. I can’t wait to get back to battle with him, that’s for sure.”
If all goes well, Campbell won’t have to wait long. The backup netminder has been sidelined with a lower-body injury suffered in the waning minutes against Calgary on Jan. 24, but barring any setbacks he will take the cage again on Saturday in Edmonton.
That’s good news for Toronto’s goalie depth, which took a massive hit when starter Frederik Andersen joined Campbell on the injured list Monday.
According to Keefe, Andersen is “progressing well” from a lower-body issue and will join the Leafs on their road trip, although there is no timeline on when he might return. Michael Hutchinson had stepped in for Toronto in its two games this week versus the Flames, going 1-1-0 with a .927 save percentage.
“It’s [been] a tough process,” Campbell admitted of his road back to full health. “But thankfully we have an amazing staff here and they just had it all laid out for me. I feel really confident in my body and ready to go out and perform whenever called upon.”
Joe Thornton and Jake Muzzin are also expected to be back for Saturday’s game, although Keefe cautions they too will be game-time decisions. Both players were injured during last Saturday’s game in Montreal – lower body for Thornton and a broken facial bone for Muzzin – and missed the Leafs’ two games at home against Calgary, but were able to practise fully on Friday.
Muzzin spent Friday’s practice testing out a new accessory for the first time his career, sporting a full face shield that will be necessary to protect his still-healing face. While there is some debate over how exactly the injury happened, whether it was the follow-through of Canadiens’ forward Tyler Toffoli’s stick that got him or the puck that went flying by as well, Muzzin said the moments after it happened were unpleasant.
“It was a little bit scary, I’m not going to lie,” Muzzin said. “When you get hit in the face, you kind of black out a little bit and then you see the blood coming, so I was just praying the eye was okay. If [something gets broken], it is what it is, but when you get hit in the eye it can be pretty bad. Shortly after I was able to open my eye a little bit and see, so that settled me down a little bit but we’re good now.”
Knowing what awaits the Leafs in Edmonton, a return to full strength on the back end couldn’t come at a better time.
Since beating Toronto 4-3 in overtime on Jan. 30, the Oilers have collected more points than any team in the NHL, winning 10 of their past 12 and five straight going into Saturday night.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been the catalysts for Edmonton outscoring opponents 49-29 in that stretch, and they now sit one-two as the league’s top scorers (40 points for McDavid, 34 for Draisaitl).
Meanwhile, Toronto’s own offence has gone cold, producing only one goal in six regulation periods against Calgary this week while going 0-for-11 on the power play. The Leafs are still atop the NHL standings though at 15-4-2, and getting some key pieces back and healthy could be just what they need for a reset.
“A team like Edmonton has played as good or better than anybody in the league here the last while,” acknowledged Keefe. “But we feel like we’ve been going pretty well as a team here and it’s still real close. You can’t take any games or any days off and certainly this week that’s going to be the case going head-to-head.”
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