Auston Matthews antsy as Maple Leafs pump brakes on return

Toronto Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews talks about the process of returning to the lineup after injury.

We already pity the Nashville Predators (Thursday) or the Detroit Red Wings (Saturday) or whichever team draws the short straw that is Auston Matthews’ return game.

If body language and vocal tone are any indication, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ stern franchise face is fed up with sitting on the sidelines and watching his team win games without him.

“Boring” is the adjective Matthews used to briskly sum up the past 26 days of his life, as he endures the third and longest break from action in this sophomore season.

Watch the 20-year-old’s mannerisms and listen to his answers Monday as he addressed local reporters after participating in a full-contact practice, then tell us this guy isn’t frustrated.

So, yes, the centreman says the right things — how “awesome” it was to join friend Morgan Rielly courtside Sunday to watch his favourite out-of-market NBA team, Oklahoma City, defeat the Toronto Raptors in a 257-point bucketfest, how pal Mitch Marner has excelled in his absence — but it’s evident that coach Mike Babcock’s downgrading of Matthews’ status from “I think he’s playing right away” to ruling him out for Tuesday’s match in Tampa is eating at the competitor.

While he’s nursed his separated right shoulder, Matthews has seen James van Riemsdyk pass him in goals and fellow super sophomores William Nylander and Marner leapfrog him in points.

“I’m just trying to get back and play hockey,” said Matthews, set to miss his 20th game of a season leading into a potential contract-extension summer.

It’s not just Matthews with whom the Maple Leafs are treating with kid gloves as they play out a mostly meaningless 10-game string before gearing up for a first-round playoff series that’ll kick off in either Tampa or Boston.

Top-four defenceman Nikita Zaitsev finally practised with the full group Monday after 10 days off with a nagging illness and insisted twice that he was ready to play a game. Despite describing his health as “unbelievable,” Zaitsev, too, will sit out Tuesday against the division leaders.

“I’m pretty proud to watch this hockey team playing,” Zaitsev said. “We’re doing the right things here.”

There’s one more cautionary tale.

Number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen, who practised for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury Wednesday, has gone from probable to uncertain to start against the Lightning. At the very least, the big Dane will back up the overachieving Curtis McElhinney, as third-stringer Garret Sparks was returned to the AHL Marlies.

Thing is, it’s hard to argue with Toronto’s tactic of holding back their horses, even if they’re champing at the bit.

The Leafs have gone a remarkable 5-2-2 during Matthews’ latest rehab and 3-0-0 since McElhinney slid into Andersen’s crease.

“He’s been unreal,” Andersen said. “I feel a lot better. You do what you need to do to be at your best, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”

All four of the Leafs’ walking wounded — Matthews, Andersen, Zaitsev and Leo Komarov (whose day-to-day leg injury should keep him out at least another week) — will travel with the club on its two-stop road trip this week against the two best teams in the NHL.

Facing powerhouses Tampa and Nashville — each first in its respective conference, each still battling for home ice all the way through — will present the Leafs with a difficult test and yet another chance to boost the confidence and experience of the healthy players benefiting from all that ice time Matthews & Co. aren’t using.

“I never thought much about the injuries. Guys get hurt and you gotta play. The biggest concern is when they get back, are they ready to play?” Babcock said.

Forget the just-win-the-next-one mentality or the five-game segments, fans. The coach’s full focus is on the post-season and ensuring his lineup is as fit as possible for April 11. If some guys are so healthy, they’re irritated, well, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

This is a group about to rocket from weeks of getting motivated with practically nothing on the line to everything on the line in a snap.

“We’re going to have to play better and harder than we have thus far this year,” Babcock said, “and we all know that.”

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