ST. LOUIS — Auston Matthews just ripped through one of the hottest scoring stretches of his career while receiving regular treatment on an aching right wrist.
In fact, the NHLer with more goals than any other since Dec. 1 — he’s got 18, ahead of Kyle Connor and Dominik Kubalik at 15 — revealed during Thursday’s NHL all-star media day that he’s felt noticeably less comfortable with the puck on his stick for the last three weeks or so.
“It’s just nagging every time you’re stick-handling, shooting, stuff like that,” said Matthews. “I think when you get in a game situation, obviously there’s so much adrenaline and so much stuff kind of running through your mind and everything, you kind of forget about it, I guess.
“And you can kind of manage it and play through it.”
The Toronto Maple Leafs centre mixed in some much-needed rest during the team’s bye week and made the decision to stay off the ice for this weekend’s all-star festivities to put himself in the best position possible for a strong finish.
That would be a prudent approach for any player, but it’s a no-brainer for a guy logging more than 20 minutes per night on a team facing a battle to qualify for the playoffs down the stretch.
Matthews has dressed for all 49 Leafs games so far and finds himself on pace for 57 goals and 95 points — both of which would be career highs. The stretch where he’s nursed the wrist injury included a hat-trick performance against New Jersey on Jan. 14 and it’s believed there was some concern behind the scenes earlier in the month that he might have to sit out some games.
However, with treatment, he’s managed to avoid that course of action despite seeing increased ice time under new head coach Sheldon Keefe.
“It’s just been something I’m trying to manage with the medical team,” said Matthews. “Just making sure obviously every game that rehab, treatment, stuff like that, just doing everything I can to help it feel as best it can throughout this whole process.
“Obviously guys are always playing through stuff — some more serious than others — but you’re kind of at a point in the season where every game matters and you want to be out there with your teammates every night.”
Matthews will be back on the ice with the Leafs for practice in Nashville on Sunday afternoon and fully intends to be in the lineup when they face the Predators the following night: “I mean that’s my plan. That’s my goal.”
That will kick off a 33-game sprint to the finish that will start with Toronto four points back of Florida for the final guaranteed playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.
Matthews chose to spend his bye week at home in Scottsdale, Ariz. — “getting out of the snowy weather that’s been going on in Toronto the last couple weeks” — and chose to return to the cold driving sleet by then travelling to St. Louis despite not taking part in the skills competition or all-star game.
It was a sign of respect that guarantees he’ll face no punishment from the league, yes, but it’s also indicative of how much Matthews values this event. He was in great spirits at Stifel Theatre on Thursday night and considers it a serious honour that he’s been selected to the all-star game in each of his four NHL seasons.
His decision to step back allowed good friend and native St. Louisian Brady Tkachuk to get an invite — Brady’s father, Keith, told Matthews he’s now owed a steak dinner — and Matthews spoke at length about the all-stars that influenced him on the way up.
His childhood affinity for Patrick Kane is well-known, but he also went through a period where he emulated everything Alex Ovechkin did.
“I’d start taping my stick like him, I went yellow laces and kept my tongues out on my skates and stuff like that,” said Matthews. “I think that’s just what you do as a kid when you’re kind of idolizing different players.
“Playing against him now, it’s pretty fun. It’s surreal.”
That’s the kind of role Matthews now fills for young kids across the continent and beyond.
In a perfect world, he’d be on the ice at Enterprise Center with the league’s other stars doing what he loves best. But given what he’s already accomplished at something less than 100 per cent and how critical the stretch drive will be, something had to be sacrificed.
“In the grand scheme of things, the important games are the ones that are [left in the] regular season,” said Matthews. “Just getting those extra couple days to kind of rest and heal and move on for these last 30-plus games, I think was really important.”