TORONTO – Moments earlier, Auston Matthews had been so happy.
The 28th goal of the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs wunderkind drew an unusually animated celebration – what, with it tying the score inside the final four minutes of an emotionally-charged game against the New York Islanders.
Matthews didn’t get a chance to share in the joy with his teammates when they polished off a 4-3 victory in the shootout. He’d been pinned awkwardly on a double-hit between Adam Pelech and Cal Clutterbuck the shift after his big goal, and that sent him hobbling to the dressing room for the night.
“It sucks,” said Leafs winger Mitch Marner. “He’s a big part of this team. I mean he’s a once-in-a-lifetime player on a team. So it’s nice to have that, and it sucks when you see him get [knocked] out of the game.”
There was no official update on Matthews’ condition, but there was plenty of concern in the air.
You could hear it in the voice of coach Mike Babcock, who has been known to put a positive spin on these things immediately after games where his players get shut down early. He took a different tact here.
“I don’t know,” said Babcock. “We’ll know in the morning.”
The Leafs have already seen life without Matthews this season and didn’t much like it. He missed four games in November with a suspected back issue and another six in December because of a concussion, and the location of his latest ailment appeared again to be upper body.
While there’s no good time to lose your franchise cornerstone, now seems particularly inopportune.
Toronto is riding a tremendous wave of enthusiasm, with 12 wins in 14 games, and Matthews has played a huge role in the team’s recent offensive explosion – taking over top spot in the NHL in even-strength goals per 60 at 1.74, ahead of underrated Ducks forward Ondrej Kase (1.66), Alex Ovechkin (1.5), Nikita Kucherov (1.49), William Karlsson (1.48) and Brock Boeser (1.35).
“Clearly he’s a big part of our team and going down the stretch we’re going to need him,” said Leafs centre Nazem Kadri. “Hopefully it’s not too bad.”
The injury dampened some of the enthusiasm you might have expected after Toronto erased a 2-0 lead and rallied once more when Jordan Eberle’s pass from behind the net banked in off Nikita Zaitsev’s skate in the third period.
The Matthews line had its hands full with the Mathew Barzal trio through much of the night, but scored the tying goal on a good bounce while going head-to-head with John Tavares.
Really, it was the kind of game good teams find a way to win. They didn’t have their best against an opponent fighting for its playoff life, but the Leafs found a way to grind out two more points.
“They’re a motivated bunch and I think that they came out great and they played a great game,” defenceman Morgan Rielly said of the Islanders. “You know, that’s a well-coached team and they came out and they played hard. Credit to them. I think that we have to have that mentality a bit better than we did tonight.
“They brought the game to us.”
The Matthews injury comes with the Leafs already in the market for centre depth ahead of Monday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline. Unfortunately for general manager Lou Lamoriello, the options are limited and the prices high.
If he’s sidelined for any meaningful period of time, there will be a trickle-down effect on a lineup that’s scored 53 goals in 14 games.
“He’s a big influence down the middle,” said Kadri. “Obviously, with the depth we have, it gives teams different looks and it’s harder to defend.”