TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs have their priorities straight.
Sure, with six games remaining on the regular-season docket, fans would love to see Auston Matthews cruise past the 60-goal mark, lock up consecutive Rocket Richard trophies, threaten Alex Ovechkin’s career-best 65, and see how close he could flirt with 70.
But if there was any inkling that the club or its best player might prioritize individual record-breaking over breaking through the first playoff round, that theory has been tossed out faster than an empty Cadbury Mini Eggs wrapper.
Watching Matthews skate with the other injured players and terrorize a Maple Leafs practice goalie for 40 minutes Tuesday morning, it’s clear: Were Game 1 tonight, he’d be playing.
But he’s dealing with an undisclosed ailment — good luck even getting an “upper” or “lower” designation out of the team; it’s that time of year — that will keep Matthews out of action for a second straight game Tuesday and stuck at 58 goals until the upcoming road trip.
“We’re not just resting Auston in this case. He’s got an injury,” coach Sheldon Keefe clarified. “It just speaks to the fact that we’re looking bigger picture here.”
With Matthews idle, a healthy Leon Draisaitl (54 goals) could gain ground on the goal-scoring chase, and stars like Johnny Gaudreau — scorching hot in Calgary — could swipe some Hart Trophy votes.
But to get distracted by the hunt for hardware or to emphasize standings points over healthy bodies would be downright foolish, as the Maple Leafs are already a 93-per-cent lock for the Atlantic Division’s second seed and home ice in a Round 1 they must survive.
As much as the players talk about taking one game at a time, Tuesday’s home date versus the floundering Philadelphia Flyers makes the first of four games and four flights over a hectic six-day tour.
“This is as busy a stretch as you’re going to get in the NHL,” Keefe said. “We’re really just trying to manage the energy levels. They're still important games, and they're going to be difficult games for us to play.”
Filling in for the best goal-scorer in hockey is an impossible task.
Yet the Maple Leafs have won five of the six games their top centre has missed this season due to injury or suspension.
“When you're missing someone like Papi and obviously the season he's having, I think you're not replacing that and expecting to fill his shoes with one guy — or even two guys,” said captain John Tavares, who has performed well in these scenarios. “I think it shows the depth we have as a team — our ability to respond and meet that challenge.”
“So, yeah, it's been a good job by the group and something we have to continue.”
Keefe had a long chat with Alexander Kerfoot on the ice Tuesday, and the coach has elevated the utility forward to second-line centre in Matthews’ absence. He’s been toying with the idea of Kerfoot running a line with speedy Swedish wingers William Nylander and Pierre Engvall, and liked how that trio looked in Sunday’s win over the New York Islanders.
Save for that trio, however, Keefe expects to do some mixing and matching with his other forwards Tuesday. But the players know to expect the unexpected whenever their anchor isn’t in the lineup.
“He’s a big part of our team,” said Mitch Marner, “and we want to make sure he’s ready to go for whatever comes.”
A wise course of action with the postseason starting in just two weeks.
Jack Campbell versus Martin Jones is your projected goaltending matchup.... Jake Muzzin is progressing well from an undisclosed injury (not concussion-related) but will sit out for a fourth time in Toronto’s past five games.... Ondrej Kase (concussion) and Rasmus Sandin (knee) will not travel with the Maple Leafs on their upcoming road trip and will instead continue rehabbing their injuries in Toronto.... With a lawsuit pending against the team ownership, Flyers interim coach Mike Yeo declined comment on director of medical services Jim McCrossin and assistant athletic trainer Sal Raffa, who claim they have suffered a health complications due to exposure from carcinogenic Zamboni fumes. Long-serving forward Scott Laughton chose his words carefully. “I love the staff here. When you're in a place for eight to 10 years, you build really close friendships with people. I'll leave it at that. I'm very close with all our staff members,” Laughton said. “So, just try to be a good friend and good teammate.”