TORONTO -- The historic run Auston Matthews is putting together to start this season takes on an even more impressive look when you factor in that he’s operating at less than full health.
A wrist injury kept Matthews from even taking a faceoff for the final 24 minutes of Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over the Calgary Flames, but it didn’t keep him from picking up assists on both William Nylander’s late tying goal and his winner.
That vaulted Matthews into third spot in the NHL’s scoring race and made him just the third player in Maple Leafs history with points in 18 of 20 games to begin a year. He’s built a sizable lead in goals -- 18 to 13 over Edmonton’s Connor McDavid -- despite managing an issue that’s required his left wrist to be taped.
He then jammed his right wrist while sliding into the end boards during the second period of Wednesday’s game. Sportsnet cameras showed athletic therapist Paul Ayotte taping that one up on the bench afterwards and Matthews was delayed in leaving the Leafs dressing room at the end of the second intermission.
“He’s been dealing with it for a long time now throughout this season. It hasn’t slowed him down,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe.
While it obviously sounds some alarm bells, the team is hopeful that a small let-up in the schedule will help keep him in the lineup. Matthews has missed only one game this season, Jan. 22 vs. Edmonton, and the Leafs now have a couple days to prepare for a highly anticipated three-game set with the red-hot Oilers starting Saturday at Rogers Place.
That means some extra treatment and rest for Matthews.
“We’ll see how he is. They’ll continue to take care of him and monitor it,” said Keefe. “We don’t think it’s anything more at this point than what he’s been dealing with virtually all season.”
The last revelation is a big one because we’d never otherwise know it. Matthews and linemate Mitch Marner have both been on a tear for the 15-4-2 Leafs, playing monster minutes and single-handedly carrying them to victories on multiple nights so far.
Matthews is second among all NHL players with 82 shots and he’s continued to be the league’s most lethal 5-on-5 scorer despite whatever physical limitations he’s had to manage.
Even after the Flames kept him from scoring during a two-game series, Matthews still had 17 goals to show for his last 16 games overall. Plus 31 points on the season.
“I think it’s pretty special,” Leafs captain John Tavares said this week. “We should be enjoying it and just as a group, just building off what he’s doing. The run he’s on is tremendous and not surprising in many ways.
“Him and Mitch, and the way they’ve really truly established themselves as two of the best in game, has been remarkable.”
Matthews joined Darryl Sittler and Babe Dye in the franchise’s record book with his two-assist effort on Wednesday.
There will be considerable scrutiny now on the status of his wrist. He is the team’s second-best faceoff man behind Jason Spezza and was 8-4 against the Flames when he physically became unable to continue taking them.
That forced Keefe to veer from his usual forward pairings for 3-on-3 overtime because Matthews couldn’t take the opening draw. He went instead with Tavares and Marner for the first shift and followed with Matthews and Nylander on the second, seeing the clock frozen on a lovely finish by Nylander at 1:06.
“Really it was just as simple as Auston wasn’t comfortable taking the faceoff. Just the way that his wrist was feeling,” said Keefe. “The faceoff, to me, is really important at 3-on-3 so we sent John for that [first one] and then intended to send Auston on the fly. It just so happened that we had a D-zone faceoff, but it was on the right side and Will took it and won it.”
They found a way to keep a good thing going.
Just as Matthews has done all year.