TORONTO – Breathe easy, Leafs fans.
The path for Auston Matthews’ return to the lineup has been laid out. He skated Monday on his own and will do so again while his teammates get Tuesday off. If everything goes OK for him in Wednesday’s practice, Matthews will be back for Thursday’s visit here by the New Jersey Devils.
“We’re not going to know [where he stands until then],” said coach Mike Babcock. “He’s got to practice with the team and all that.”
Still, it sounds a lot better than the previous standing update from the organization: Day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
The Leafs managed to reel off three straight wins without Matthews, and four in a row overall, but they’re under no illusions about the kind of impact his absence has on them in the big picture.
“He’s irreplaceable,” said centre Nazem Kadri. “He’s not a guy that you can just throw any other player in the lineup and fill his shoes.”
The current break in the schedule has arrived at an opportune time for this group. Not only does it give the Leafs a chance to stretch out Matthews’ rehab and recovery, but it’s provided his teammates a chance to come up for air after playing 19 games in the first 39 days of the season.
Only the Pittsburgh Penguins and Arizona Coyotes have seen as much action so far.
Players are feeling the wear and tear of games every other night, with Tyler Bozak (maintenance) and William Nylander (ill) both missing Monday’s practice. In total, the team will have had two days off and two practices before facing the Devils.
“A little refresh,” said Babcock.
“That’s the most important part, I think – just taking this time to kind of try to clear the bumps and the bruises, and try to get guys back to 100 per cent,” added Kadri. “Over the course of the season things are going to happen and you’re not going to feel your best every single game. So it’s important to have these stretches to try to get back to that.”
It’s still a little too early to gauge how good this team is. Their 12-7-0 record is among the best in the Eastern Conference, but some of the underlying numbers paint a less rosy picture.
The Leafs have controlled 50.35 per cent of even-strength shot attempts to this point – good for 13th in the NHL. Just a little above middle of the pack. However, they also lead the league with 471 total scoring chances for, according to naturalstattrick.com.
Even while being outshot in each of their last five games, the Leafs believe they have taken positive strides on the defensive side of the puck. Players point to a decline in odd-man chances against as a sign of improvement.
“We weren’t where we wanted to be a week and a bit ago,” said forward Connor Brown. “We spent a lot of time in here focusing on the defensive side of the game and being above the puck and going over things in our own zone. Our defensive play has been night and day.”
They will certainly get a boost when Matthews is ready to return. He’s quickly become the engine of this team – a big centre who goes head-to-head with other stars and still spends more time creating offence than playing defence.
While his undisclosed injury is not believed to be serious, there will be some relief around the organization when he’s back skating in line rushes.
Banking points without Matthews was good for morale, too.
“Well I think just any time you’re playing better, you’re feeling better about yourself, you’re more likely to play good,” said Babcock. “I think that’s obviously a real positive for our group. We need to continue to get better and play with more detail.”
This is the rarest of weeks in a jam-packed NHL schedule where they’re able to work on some things.
It’s also a much-needed opportunity to get extra rest.
“It’s felt very busy, especially over the last couple weeks,” said Kadri. “I feel like there hasn’t been much R-and-R time, it’s just been constant go, go, go. So I think we like the situation we’ve put ourselves in so far — those are hard wins to get; those are hard points to get.
“It’s important, obviously, for a team to get off to a good start because in this league if you dig yourself a hole early on it’s tough to get out of.”