TORONTO – If the Toronto Maple Leafs are to maintain their lead in the race for home ice in Round 1, they’ll need to do without the services of the reigning MVP for a stretch.
Auston Matthews will be sidelined for a minimum of three weeks due to a knee sprain suffered in Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers.
“He’s one of the best players in the world, and the impact he makes is tremendous,” said captain John Tavares, who will assume 1C duties in Matthews’ absence.
“He’s a very competitive guy and he wants to be out there,” added Michael Bunting, now promoted to the top power-play unit. “So, I’m sure it’s not easy.”
Matthews had already missed two games earlier this month due to an undisclosed nagging ailment. The two injuries, coach Sheldon Keefe, are unrelated.
Winger Mitch Marner said the Leafs knew Matthews was battling pain in his knee during Wednesday’s win but didn’t understand the severity of the injury until afterward.
Coach Sheldon Keefe said he wasn’t sure Matthews sprained his knee on a specific play but was aware of his superstar’s discomfort a couple times during the game.
The Maple Leafs’ top centreman has scored 25 goals and registered 53 points over 47 games played, earning himself an invite to next weekend’s NHL All-Star Game.
Local stud Aleksander Barkov will replace Matthews on the Atlantic Division all-star roster at the Florida showcase.
The knee injury will keep Matthews out of action for at least six games, placing his earliest return on Feb. 18, when Toronto hosts Montreal.
The Maple Leafs (30-11-8) sit second in the Atlantic Division, 12 points behind the league-leading Boston Bruins and five points up on the third-seed Tampa Bay Lightning, who hold two games in hand.
Pontus Holmberg will be promoted to the top six, centring an all-Swede second line with Calle Järnkrok and William Nylander.
“Just a really smart hockey player. Understands the game really well, and I think he’s sneaky strong on his skates as well,” Tavares says of the 23-year-old rookie.
“He does a really good job of protecting pucks along the walls and (can throw) a reverse shoulder from time to time, just to stand his ground and hold his ice, earn space that way.
“He makes very subtle plays that can unlock breaking out of our own end, getting through the neutral zone, or attacking offensively. And he’s got really good instincts. He understands the game really well.”
Ironically, Toronto has thrived during the various absences through Matthews’ career, posting a 31-16-2 record when he doesn’t dress.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned about our team this season,” Keefe said, “we’ve been resilient, no matter who’s been in or out.”
Maple Leafs projected lines vs. Ottawa Senators Friday:
Bunting – Tavares – Marner
Järnkrok – Hölmberg – Nylander
McMann – Kämpf – Engvall
Aston-Reese – Kerfoot – Anderson
Rielly – Holl
Giordano – Liljegren
Sandin – Timmins