TORONTO — A shoulder.
A chance to sweep the season series against Canada’s most complete squad and add to (fourth-liner!) Patrik Laine’s slump before the Finnish superstar jets to the homeland.
A celebration of Jake Gardiner and Tyler Ennis’s 500th career NHL games.
An honouring of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ good ol’ The Hockey Song, which was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Instead, the night was owned by a hit of a different, more crushing sort — one that added drama and worry and pain to what Nazem Kadri called “one of the best wins I’ve ever seen.”
No-nonsense Jets defender Jacob Trouba delivered a hard, clean and jarring check to Auston Matthews’ left shoulder as the league’s co-leading goal-scorer cut to the net midway through the second period.
“Trouba’s a heavy, heavy defenceman, right?” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “When he hits, he hits hard — and that’s shoulders. He’s a strong, strong man.”
Once Trouba — a 202-pound force all evening — laid into that shoulder like a Mack truck, Matthews immediately winced, bent over, and glided to the bench. Seconds later, he ambled down the hallway towards team doctors.
He did not return.
Matthews won’t practice Sunday, nor will he play Monday, when he undergoes a formal examination and the Leafs host the Flames. This is the second shoulder injury Matthews has suffered over the past eight months and third of his hockey career.
On Feb. 22, Matthews was sandwiched in the slot in a double-check dished by Islanders Adam Pelech and Cal Clutterbuck.
That second-degree separation required a full month (10 games) of recovery. The Leafs never confirmed which shoulder Matthews injured during the 2017-18 season, but Babcock said post-game Saturday that it was different than the one Trouba hammered.
“He did his work this summer to get way stronger, built muscle around his shoulders, wants to protect himself. Sometimes things happen,” said Babcock, who will give a further update Monday.
With the visiting Jets clearly ready to outdo their nationally televised dud on Wednesday, the hate bubbled early.
“I’m sure that was their game plan: come out and play physical against us after the way last game went,” said Gardiner, whose parents flew in from Minnetonka, Minn., for the occasion.
Midway through the first period, Kadri boarded Trouba on the forecheck. Trouba threw his aggressor down, but Kadri’s minor penalty cost Toronto its eighth opening goal allowed through 11 games.
With Kadri serving time, Jets captain Blake Wheeler fed a crisp cross-crease pass to a way-too-open Kyle Connor for a tap-in back door and his sixth goal of a young season.
Once Matthews — the club leader in goals (10) and points (16) — hunched and grimaced his way down the hall’s shadows, the Leafs fell flat and looked scattered for 20 minutes. Lines scrambled, mojo MIA.
And when Mark Scheifele pounced on Kadri’s failed toe-drag in the Jets zone and enjoyed 120 feet of breakaway straight up the gut, one felt tempted to sound the goal horn even before the Jets’ leading scorer snapped one low-blocker past Frederik Andersen.
“They had most of the momentum,” Kadri admitted, down 2-0. “The good thing about this group is we never feel down and out.”
Reunited in the third frame on a line with play-making winger Mitch Marner and a suddenly inconsistent Patrick Marleau, Kadri popped the Leafs on the board by finishing off a nifty Marner steal on the forecheck and now has himself a little two-game goal-scoring run.
Marner would later reveal that he and Kadri designed that play during the second intermission.
“Electric. After that first goal, I don’t think one fan sat down in their seat for the rest of the game,” Kadri said.
“I feel like we didn’t skip a beat. As soon as that line was put together, we came every shift. They’re great guys to play with. Patty’s got the speed and hustle. Mitch obviously is an exceptional playmaker. It’s very easy for me to get open and receive the puck. I just gotta be ready to score.”
Gardiner tied the game late on a wrister, picking a fine occasion for his first of a contract year, then scorching-hot Kasperi Kapanen drilled the winner on the ensuing shift with just 2:45 left on the clock.
Two goals in 26 seconds salvaged victory from certain defeat and lit the barn up.
“I’m sure my dad was throwing some F-bombs,” Gardiner smiled.
I swear, they don’t need much.
With William Nylander still unsigned, and now Matthews’ health in doubt, the Maple Leafs still found a way against a structured, nasty team that, for the most part, was happy with its road game.
Matthews, who missed 20 games in 2018-19 now joins Nylander as massive question marks, and Kadri — for now — is a second-line centre again.
“He’s a one-of-a-kind player. It’s hard to fill that void,” Kadri said, “but I don’t think you rely on one specific guy.”
“We’ve been talking about depth for 10 months here with this group. This is a time where it really showed, especially down the stretch of this game.
“Just a resilient win. Always believed.”