Leafs give Matthews a happy homecoming in win over Coyotes

Auston Matthews scored his first NHL goal in Arizona and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Arizona Coyotes.

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Toronto Maple Leafs are, by any measure, a team to be feared at the offensive end of the ice.

And yet, when the puck drops Friday they won’t even have a single player ranked inside the NHL’s top-50 scorers. That shouldn’t last long now that Auston Matthews is back from injury and Mitch Marner has regained old form, but this snapshot in time underscores why they look so dangerous heading into the second half of the season.

This team has so many horses. Eight of its top-nine forwards were sitting at 20 points or better following Thursday’s 7-4 victory over the Arizona Coyotes – another night where they rolled out three lines worthy of concern to the opposition.

"It seemed like everybody contributed tonight and that’s what you want," said Matthews, all smiles after a memorable homecoming. "That’s the kind of team we are. We’ve got a lot of depth and a lot of guys that can contribute in different ways. It’s definitely a good sign."

The Leafs have shown they’re good through 38 games – compiling a 23-14-1 record despite facing a pretty tough road schedule. They believe they can be something closer to great by the time the playoffs arrive.

They are certainly a more dynamic team with Matthews back driving the top line and Marner again producing like a difference-maker down the lineup.

Marner had a goal and two assists Thursday – bringing his total to nine points in the last four games – and is suddenly on pace to eclipse his 61-point rookie year. He called this season a "roller-coaster" so far, but hasn’t looked back since ending a prolonged scoring drought before the Christmas break.

"He’s feeling it right now," said teammate Patrick Marleau.

Matthews also looks to be like his old self after missing 10 games – the last six due to concussion-like symptoms before returning on Saturday night.

Gila River Arena was awash in No. 34 Maple Leafs sweaters as he played about 30 minutes from where he grew up in Scottsdale. The sellout crowd was divided in a couple different ways – with many Canadians here on vacation watching their favourite team, but also locals supporting the only player raised in the Valley to reach the NHL.

He also had a large contingent of family and friends on hand for his only visit here of the season.

There was an unmistakeable roar when Matthews added another goal to his personal highlight reel, fooling Arizona defenceman Jason Demers with a toe-curl and ripping a shot over Scott Wedgewood’s shoulder and under the crossbar midway through the first period.

"It was a great feeling," said Matthews. "Definitely one I’ll remember – a pretty special goal. Definitely pretty nice."

That was sandwiched by goals from Marner and Zach Hyman as Toronto built an early 3-0 lead and nearly squandered it – seeing Josh Archibald and Brendan Perlini respond during a strong Coyotes push before the intermission.

Matthews was moved around the lineup after Nazem Kadri took a blow to the head from Arizona’s Lawson Crouse and didn’t return for the final two periods. There was no concrete update on Kadri’s condition from the Leafs, but head coach Mike Babcock sounded optimistic that he might be available to play Friday in Colorado.

In a game with the Coyotes playing from behind the entire night and score effects heavily at play, the shot attempts were 15-15 with Matthews on the ice at even strength.

"Obviously you’re excited because your family is here and it’s a good thing," said Babcock. "To me, Auston is just on his way back, he has been out for a while. He’s like a lot of us – we were off for Christmas and not quite as smooth we normally would be."

Still, the team did what it does best. Fill the net.

Marleau scored two more goals to hit 14 on the season – well on his way to reaching the 20 the coach marked him down for in training camp – while William Nylander stripped Oliver Ekman-Larsson off the puck and beat Scott Wedgewood on a breakaway for his eighth.

Steady Connor Brown scored his 10th into an empty net.

"I liked the fact that we won," said Babcock. "I didn’t think it was a high-level game. They played last night and I didn’t think we were even close to being what we’re capable of being. We scored, but we didn’t defend very well and take care of the puck. It’s a good win for us and obviously it’s a big road trip for us here.

"We’ve had a real grind on the road and we’d like to finish the trip off right."

After visiting the Avalanche and playing Sunday afternoon in Vegas, the Leafs only have 17 of their final 42 games remaining away from Air Canada Centre.

No wonder they feel encouraged about what’s to come. They’ve yet to be their best and they’ve still been pretty good.


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