Abuse of star players debate arises on Maple Leafs' opening night

Auston Matthews says his back feels fine after taking a couple hard cross checks late in the game vs. Montreal, says players have the right to defend their nets, but just wants the refs to be consistent with any cross checking calls in that area.

TORONTO – Which side of the thin line your sympathies lie depends on a list of factors as long as Zdeno Chara’s stick.

The score on the board.

The importance of the game.

The amount of time left on the clock.

Whether you view the NHL rulebook as gospel or guideline.

The star power and grudge history of the specific players involved.

The number and types of penalties previously called against each side up until that point.

And, more often than not, the laundry you cheer for.

Take another look at the stiff cross-checks NHL superstar Auston Matthews absorbed from Montreal Canadiens defenders Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot in the final moments of regulation during Wednesday’s season opener while trying to gain a scoring stance at the net-front during a tied-up tilt:

Are you let ’em play? Or letter of the law?

Matthews winced his way off the ice as the third-period buzzer sounded, favouring his lower back. He spun away from the cameras and sought attention from Leafs athletic therapist Paul Ayotte on the bench.

No penalty was called.

Matthews stayed in the game, played through what coach Sheldon Keefe called “a stinger,” didn't complain, and even registered a secondary assist in Morgan Rielly’s eventual OT winner.

The abuse, fair or foul, was rendered moot by the result, but it sparked a debate as old as stripes and whistles.

“Great to see NHL hockey back last night. Such amazing athletes & so much speed & skill in the game now,” tweeted Jeff Jackson, a Wasserman/Orr Hockey Group agent who helped negotiate monster contracts for his client, Connor McDavid, as well as Matthews.

“But watching the abuse that star players take is hard to watch. Felt like the 80’s with the cross checks in the back & the hacking & slashing. NFL protects QB’s? Why don’t we?”

“Pet peeve, it is common place and accepted that Weber and Chiarot can absolutely hammer Auston Matthews in the back in front of the Montreal net but if an offensive player were to commit the exact same infraction they would frequently get a penalty,” tweeted player-turned-analyst Mike Johnson, a former Leaf and Canadien.

“This is not a Toronto/Matthews tweet. I watch [Montreal’s Brendan] Gallagher get pounded night after night with no calls. It's [an] offence/defence thing.”

Matthews' agent, Judd Moldaver, who works with Jackson, told Sportsnet this is not a debate about Matthews.

"I think penalties should get called, star player or otherwise, when the rules are broken," Muldaver said.

For context, it should be noted that Matthews and Chiarot had been engaging in a physical battle all night:

And with every single NHL game in this unique campaign pitting divisional rivals against one another, intimidation and physical punishment should take on added importance.

Every bruise is an investment.

On the flip side, every drawn penalty is an opportunity to gain ground in the standings.

“There’s definitely a line, for sure,” Matthews said, following Thursday’s practice.

“You always want to protect players. I mean, I guess the guys have a right to defend the net and create that body position and stuff, but I think you just have to find that happy medium. And as far as the penalties and the refereeing goes, it has to be consistent.”

Matthews downplayed the body blows he absorbed and their effect, saying the sticks just caught him in a “weird spot” and that the officials’ consistency cannot be judged on 64 minutes of action.

Captain John Tavares had his teammate’s, um, back.

“I think there's certainly got to be a line in the sand somewhere,” said Tavares, no stranger to life on the edges of the blue paint.

“It's a highly contested area, and the defending team has got the right to defend it. But I think there certainly gets to a point where it crosses the line, and it should be called.”

As an organization, the Maple Leafs have made a concerted effort to embrace the difficult, to push through the pain.

Because, let’s be real, if Matthews isn’t drawing that whistle in Game 1, he’s certainly not getting it in a Game 7.

From a personnel standpoint, that’s why Kyle Dubas signed a Wayne Simmonds and doesn’t want to hear your trade offers for Zach Hyman. At the other end of the ice, it’s why he signed Zach Bogosian.

The club needs to thrive in those oft-romanticized “dirty areas,” not shy away from them.

Keefe has made it a mission in 2021 to prepare his Leafs for the hard and the ugly. Certainly, one game in is too early to start filing complaints or begging for power-plays.

The coach chalks up Wednesday’s abuse of his best player to hockey being hockey.

“That’s very much in the fabric of the sport in terms of the competitiveness and how hard it is, especially around the net,” Keefe said. As if the path to reaching their wildest fantasy rests in realism.

“I think the NHL has made great strides to protect the players over the years, and they'll continue to look at things along the way that can help make it safer not just for stars like Auston but for all players of all ages.”

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