“Nothing new,” said Morgan Rielly. “He’s back to his usual self.”
That was the most encouraging part of Thursday’s 5-2 victory over the league-leading Nashville Predators. It had been four weeks between games for Matthews, who showed no apparent signs of indecision or skittishness in his return from a separated right shoulder.
The way he danced through the Predators zone before scoring his 29th goal called to mind the words of Frederik Andersen, who said earlier this season that Matthews plays as though he’s got the puck on a string even when it’s not on his stick.
First he passed it to Rielly and then found an open area in coverage to get it back. As he cut towards the slot his first attempt was blocked by a sea of players in front. Matthews remained undeterred, sliding the puck free of Kyle Turris’ feet and firing it past Vezina Trophy favourite Pekka Rinne.
“He doesn’t quit,” said Andersen. “I think a lot of players would just try to whack at it and shoot it, but he had the presence of mind and dragged it over. That’s the type of goals we really needed to score, too, on a good goalie – if not the best this year.”
It came with the Leafs playing uphill after taking a couple second-period penalties. The game hung in the balance despite the fact Toronto completely dominated the opening 20 minutes, holding a team that hadn’t lost in regulation since Feb. 17 to one shot at even strength.
After Matthews scored, linemates William Nylander and Zach Hyman hooked up for a goal the next time they were on the ice. Then Mitch Marner sniped one past Rinne nine seconds into the third period lest anyone be afraid the Leafs might pull a repeat of Tampa, where they blew a 3-0 lead.
“We played five of six really good periods on this road trip and we dropped the ball the other night in Tampa,” said coach Mike Babcock. “A good response.”
While they have done plenty of winning without Matthews in the lineup this season – they’re 11-7-2 during his 20 injury absences – they are not the same team. They don’t score as many goals and they give up more.
Matthews is up to 27 even-strength goals on the season, averaging exactly .5 per game, and gives Babcock the ability to sprinkle high-end balance through his lineup. When he plays, Nylander is beside him on the right wing. Nazem Kadri lines up as the No. 2 centre, Tyler Bozak drops to No. 3 and trade deadline pickup Tomas Plekanec becomes No. 4.
Against the Predators on the road, it was fascinating to watch Babcock abandon any serious attempt at line matching. That almost seems against his very DNA. But it speaks to the level of comfort he has in this group when it is healthy.
“We think we’re a young team that’s getting better all the time,” said Babcock. “I think [Plekanec] coming here has given us four lines now we can play at any spot. I wasn’t worried about any matchups at all tonight. I thought that was positive. [Fourth-line winger Andreas] Johnsson gives us really good speed.
“We’re a deeper team right now so that’s a positive thing.”
For perspective, here’s how the 5-on-5 ice time for Matthews broke down against Nashville’s centres: Nick Bonino (4:00), Ryan Johansen (3:16), Turris (3:13) and Mike Fisher (2:07).
There is legitimate hope here in the country music capital that the Predators have another Stanley Cup run in them this spring. It’s not crazy to suggest Toronto might, too. Both teams are fast and deep and playing at a high level – with the top two winning percentages in the NHL since Jan. 24.
Seeing Matthews look like the old Matthews provided some measure of relief to his teammates.
He missed six games in November with a back injury, four games in December with a concussion and sat out 10 with the separated shoulder. Yet, it was like he’d never missed a step.
“I felt fine out there,” said Matthews. “Got engaged early, got the puck and was able to make a couple plays and that kind of grows your confidence for the rest of the game.”
To say nothing of the regular season.
There are only eight games left before the playoffs start and the Leafs are getting healthy. Leo Komarov is the last man standing in the injury ward now that Matthews and Nikita Zaitsev are both back, and Babcock had wondered how the time away might affect his guys since the pace of the league is accelerating.
Matthews summoned a defiant answer.
“He was working very hard during his absence,” said Rielly. “Spending a lot of time on the ice, a lot of time at the rink doing whatever he had to do to get back. I think you could tell. He came out skating very well, making plays, obviously he made a good play on the goal.
“I mean like I said before: Just back to his usual self.”