Maple Leafs' Matthews still finding ways to score without his best weapon

Connor Hellebuyck made 36 saves and Neal Pionk notched 3 assists as the Winnipeg Jets defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3.

TORONTO -- Even without full strength in the control hand on his stick, Auston Matthews had another dominant night at the office.

But hidden beneath a sterling stat line and some well-deserved post-game praise from his teammates was the fact the Toronto Maple Leafs superstar still clearly wasn’t himself. That might sound crazy to suggest after Matthews added two goals to his league-best total, helped his team generate 73 per cent of the expected goals across nearly 17 even-strength minutes and generally starred during Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

Yet it’s true.

And it’s natural to wonder if he’ll be able to keep battling through his right wrist issue or if he’ll be forced to step back and give it more rest in the days and weeks ahead. Matthews is doing everything he can to make an impact even without his most dangerous weapon, including getting to the front of the net where he scored with a deflection and a quick redirect against Connor Hellebuyck.

“I think it just speaks to the calibre of player that he is,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who indicated earlier this week that the organization's most prized asset isn’t believed to be in danger of making things worse by playing through the discomfort.

Matthews is putting together a special campaign despite his injury limitations. He’s scored 20 times in 24 games — good for .83 goals per game, which would be the NHL’s best mark since Mario Lemieux had 35 goals in 43 games (.81) during the 2000-01 season.

Put another way, he’s scoring at a 68-goal pace across a normal year.

And while it’s fair to question how sustainable it might be over the long haul, it’s worth noting that his 19.4 per cent shooting percentage isn’t so far out of whack from his previous career trajectory to suggest a major regression ahead.

However, it’s hard to imagine it continuing while watching him pass up opportunities to shoot. Matthews normally disguises his release and can hit a specific area of the net with uncanny accuracy. But against the Jets, he was barely even loading it up, choosing instead to hover around the slot on the power play in search of loose change from others.

“He’s got extremely good hands in and around the net,” said Keefe. “He doesn’t typically play in those positions, so he doesn’t get as many opportunities as other people, but he’s got a lot of goals – I’ve looked at his career goals – that he scores in around the net.

“That’s what I’m talking about where it’s him just adapting his game a little bit, going to different spaces and he’s good enough abilities and sense to make good on those chances.”

You don’t score 178 times in your first 306 NHL games without being multidimensional, but, incredibly, the NHL says just 16 of those goals have come by tip and four by deflection.

So for now he’s playing a somewhat unfamiliar role.

He’s also trying to manage a wrist and hand injury with the games coming fast and furious — including another three-in-four-day stretch starting with Thursday’s returning meeting against the Jets.

The Leafs have seen Matthews sit out three games this season. They’ve all appeared to be situations where they were being proactive by building in some extra rest and recovery, one back in January against Edmonton and then two more last week against the Oilers after Matthews aggravated a nagging issue while absorbing a crash with the end boards.

With two quieter weeks ahead, he may benefit from taking a step back now to allow for more healing — although Tuesday’s loss was the third in a row for the North Division leaders. And Matthews managed to play more than 22 minutes while going 13-5 in the faceoff dot in addition to his offensive contributions.

“Once you get out there (the pain and discomfort) dwindles away,” said Matthews. “I felt fine today and my legs felt good. We did some good stuff tonight. Obviously, we’d like to get the two points, but I think it’s always a positive when you’re helping the team in different areas of the game.”

That’s been a constant for him all season. Even at less than 100 per cent he’s found another gear.

“Yeah, I mean it’s not even just the production,” said captain John Tavares. “I think his overall game is tremendous in all three zones and such a (positive) influence for us.”

They can only hope he gets back to full strength soon.

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