Auston Matthews’ return gives ‘very motivated’ Maple Leafs a boost

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews speaks to media ahead of his return to the lineup, stating his excitement to get back and his belief that the rest is beneficial heading into the stretch run but would prefer to be playing.

SUNRISE, Fla. – Auston Matthews is back, and so is the chase for 60.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ top centre and scorer will draw back into the lineup Saturday versus the Florida Panthers after missing three games with an undisclosed injury (the only hint: it’s something he has not dealt with before).

“It’s never fun sitting out,” Matthews said Saturday morning. “But you gotta take the good with the bad, and hopefully that little bit of rest was beneficial.”

Matthews has been on a tear this year, setting the Leafs’ franchise record and leading the Rocket Richard Trophy with 58 goals, smashing the 100-point mark for the first time in his career, and dominating all over the sheet.

“Big part of our lineup,” winger Mitch Marner said. “Just helps the overall confidence of our group.”

Following wins over the lottery-bound Islanders and Flyers without Matthews, Toronto’s confidence got checked Thursday in Tampa, as the Maple Leafs suffered an 8-1 defeat to the Lightning, their most lopsided loss since 2016.

“The other night wasn't pretty,” Matthews said. “We got our asses kicked. So, I’d like to think we're going to be a very motivated team tonight to get back on track.

“These games are going to be difficult, but these are the exact games I think we need leading up to the playoffs.”

While the Maple Leafs took Friday off to rest up for this weekend’s back-to-back, Matthews skated Friday and got in a little visit with friend and former teammate Joe Thornton.

“He really wanted to play tonight,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He's not playing through anything today. He's feeling good.

“Obviously he’s a very important player for us, so definitely gives us a boost.”

Matthews explained that an injury suffered during an awkward collision during last Saturday win in Ottawa gave him trouble after the buzzer.

“When the adrenaline wears off, you get a better sense of where you’re at,” Matthews said.

In light of all the attention Matthews receives from the opposition, a brief respite from the wear and tear of the 82-game grind could serve him and the team well as the playoffs approach.

“Mitch Marner missed a good stretch of time this year with a [shoulder] injury, and we see what that's done for him and how he's played since coming back,” Keefe reminded. “Time off and recovery time is really hard to come by in the NHL. It certainly is one of the of the positives that comes from injuries.”

The Maple Leafs will see how Matthews’ body responds to action against the red-hot Panthers, winners of a ridiculous 12 straight, before making a decision on Sunday’s game in Washington.

“It's been a little bit difficult just trying to work through it, but we've got a great staff here,” Matthews said. “The communication has been great and just getting everything that I need to help me feel better. It's been a pretty solid week, so I feel comfortable getting back in tonight.

One-Timers: Jake Muzzin will not play Saturday. He’s been skating but has not seen game action since April 14. He’s a possibility for Sunday at Washington. “He’s been feeling good and progressing every day,” Keefe says…. Rasmus Sandin (knee) should be a full participant in the Maple Leafs’ practices next week as he tries to return before the regular season ends…. Sergei Bobrovsky versus Jack Campbell is the goaltending matchup…. Jason Spezza will be scratched.

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