NEW YORK – The Toronto Maple Leafs could have given their franchise player five extra days to recover from the first concussion of his life.
Instead, Auston Matthews will be back where he wants to be Saturday night in New York City — centring his team’s top line against the Rangers.
“I just want to play hockey,” Matthews said Saturday morning, prior to the Leafs’ last game heading into a four-day Christmas break.
“I feel ready, I feel good, and I’m excited to get back in there tonight.”
Matthews suffered his concussion two weeks ago today, when his head collided with teammate Morgan Rielly in Pittsburgh. The forward finished out that game but, suffering symptoms of his head injury, needed to undergo protocol.
The 20-year-old has been skating hard on his own, travelling with the team, and responded well after his first full practice Friday.
“It’s not like he’s been sitting around. Saying that, we’re going to watch the game tonight and we’ll know. I don’t know at this point. I expect him to be good,” said coach Mike Babcock, who asserted that the timing of Matthews’ return was beyond his control.
“I don’t have anything to do with this. We have a medical group that decides all these things. It has nothing to do with me,” Babcock explained. “They’ve gone way beyond probably what you could have done to give him all the time to be healthy, and he’s ready to go. So he’s going.”
“As far as conditioning, it’s not totally going to be there,” Matthews said. “I don’t think I wanna be out there trying to dipsy-doodle guys.”
With Matthews out, Toronto went 2-4 during a tough mid-December travel slate. The concussion marks Matthews’ second injury of the season. He missed four games in November with an undisclosed upper-body ailment, and the Leafs won all of those.
The Leafs have failed to score more than twice in five of the six games Matthews missed while recovering form his concussion, the club’s 8-1 romp over Carolina Tuesday being the exception.
Babcock argues that has more to do with a lack of energy and work ethic than talent.
“We played five games in seven days. If you check out the whole National Hockey League, there won’t be one other [condensed run like that] this year.” “Does that have anything to do with it?”
Despite missing 10 games, Matthews still leads his team in points (26) and plus/minus (plus-13) and ranks second in goals (13). Toronto has averaged four fewer shots per game when Matthews sits.
“He’s someone who can change the game at any moment,” Rangers defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “You see how they’ve been without him a little bit. That’s a big hole for them. When he comes back, instantly it’s someone who can light the lamp on you pretty easily and someone you have to play very hard.”
That task likely would’ve fallen on Rangers checking centre Jesper Fast, but he’s now out two to three weeks with a quad injury. Expect Kevin Hayes’ line to match up against Matthews, and Ryan McDonagh and Nick Holden to be the Rangers’ shutdown pair.
The Rangers have been dominant on home ice of late, going 12-1-1 in their last 14 games at Madison Square Garden, and are gunning for a strong bounce-back performance after a poor effort against New Jersey Thursday.
Matthews downplayed his frustration with bouncing in and out of the lineup this season. He said he did consult with some of his fellow Leafs who have endured concussions.
“Some guys on the team have had them, and they shared their experience, but everybody’s is different,” Matthews said.
“It’s a physical sport. Stuff like that happens, and you’ve got to deal with it.”