TORONTO – In an alternate universe, Auston Matthews would stride onto home ice Monday night and embark on his mission for a third consecutive 50-goal campaign.
And yet here in the real world, multiple injuries and a viral pandemic have kept the Toronto Maple Leafs superstar’s numbers in check better than Phillip Danault with rocket skates.
"It's huge," coach Sheldon Keefe said. "One of the best players in the world. It's been tough not having him in the games, because you're seeing just how effective and dominant he is in the practice sessions.
“Players are excited. Fans should be excited."
No one is more excited than the player himself, who eagerly wished to appear in the Leafs’ opener Wednesday but was relegated to a pinstriped suit over a T-shirt — in line with the new business-casual dress code! — standing ovation.
"Gave me butterflies," Matthews said. "Made me really I wish I would've been out there with the excitement of having fans back in the arena and the energy and passion that obviously comes from it."
Just how ethereal has Matthews’ goal production been?
Had he skated in 82 games (instead of 70) in 2019-20, he was on pace to snipe 55.
Matthews’ 41 in 52 in 2020-21 — scored through a nagging wrist ailment — translates to a mellow 65-goal showing over the full 82. (Not since prime Alex Ovechkin ripped 65 in 2007-08 have goalies been terrorized so fiercely.)
Matthews’ goals-per-game rate has increased in each of his five NHL winters.
“I wish he wasn't coming back tonight, but it's good to see him back in the league," New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said.
"Hopefully he’s a little rusty, but I don’t expect that. He causes lots of problems for every team.”
Finally, the runway is long enough for the AM34 fighter jet to take off.
Even if Matthews' scoring rate flatlines at age 24, and even though he sat the Leafs’ first three games recovering from August wrist surgery, he’ll enter Monday night versus the Rangers with eyes on 60. (Seventy-nine games played at last season’s goal rate would give him 62.)
The way the Maple Leafs’ vaunted offence struggled for results last week, they might need Papi to pot that many.
Toronto’s scoring ranked sixth overall last season (3.32 goals per game) but has dropped to 22nd in the category in the early going of 2021-22 (2.33).
In one way or another, Matthews, who has steadily improved his defensive play, is roughly a goal-per-game difference-maker.
The Leafs have lit the lamp all of seven times in three games and only four times at even-strength. And despite some wonderful chances, their temporary top line of Nick Ritchie, John Tavares and Mitch Marner never once bent the net.
No wonder Matthews’ debut has stirred up such a buzz for the first two-anthem game at Scotiabank Arena in 587 days.
Leafs defensive centre David Kämpf spoke of Matthews’ faceoff ability. Rasmus Sandin is gushing about his one-timer. And John Tavares raved about Matthews’ ability to look immediately dangerous whenever returning from injury.
"His skating, to me, looks even better than it was a year ago," Keefe said. "And I thought he skated better a year ago than two seasons ago. He's changed his body and his training and all those things, but now he's also committed a lot more time to working on his skating given that he couldn't handle pucks [after surgery]. He looks a lot quicker out here. He looks very confident in his skating, very comfortable at high speeds."
Matthews has never had an issue starting on time.
Since the No. 1 pick hit ’em with the four in his instaclassic 2016 debut, no player has produced more in season debuts (nine goals, 12 points in five openers).
The reigning Rocket Richard Trophy champ scored a league-high 22 per cent of Toronto’s goals, leading the NHL in game-winners (12) and even-strength goals (31); leading his club in power-play markers (10); and running away with the Rocket despite never padding his stats with an empty-netter.
Matthews’ return will give fans their first peek at assistant Spencer Carbery’s remodelled power play, as Jason Spezza slides to the second unit and Pierre Engvall focuses on the PK.
The dual shooting threat of Matthews on one flank and William Nylander — the best Leafs forward thus far — on the other has been highly anticipated.
"It's going to open space for somebody," Matthews figures. "You have to take somebody away."
Adds Keefe: "A lot more for the opposition to think about.”
Think about what’s possible. Think about what’s probable.
Matthews’ first goal of this season will be the 200th of his career. No doubt, he’ll become the second-fastest player in Leafs history to reach that plateau, behind only legend Charlie Conacher, who needed 317 games.
Who knows? Maybe he’ll have 260 by the time April rolls around.
"I'm pumped," Matthews said.
"It's not a lot of fun watching. It looks like the guys are having a lot of fun out there, so I've been itching to get back in. But it's been good to stay patient and make sure I'm feeling fully confident, which, taking a little bit of extra time, I absolutely do."
One-Timers: Justin Holl returns to the Maple Leafs’ lineup after missing Saturday’s game due to illness…. Jake Muzzin is a go despite missing Sunday’s practice for maintenance…. Timothy Liljegren sits…. Michael Hutchinson was recalled from the Marlies on an emergency basis and backs up Jack Campbell, bringing the Alex Bishop era to a close. Probably for the best. The kid has a mid-term Tuesday and needs to study.... The Rangers won't reveal their starting goalie.
Maple Leafs projected lines versus the Rangers
Ritchie - Matthews - Marner
Bunting - Tavares - Nylander
Kerfoot - Kampf - Kase
Engvall - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Dermott