TORONTO — A persistent right wrist injury is doing a better job of stopping Auston Matthews’s shots this season than North Division goaltenders.
Matthews had 18 goals in 19 games when he used his hand to cushion the blow while sliding into the end boards during a Jan. 24 meeting against Calgary. That left him unable to take faceoffs for the rest of the night, but he played through the discomfort and earned assists on the tying and winning goals.
Then he missed two games in Edmonton to start last week’s Western Canada road trip, returning for the final three while looking much closer to 75 per cent effectiveness than 100 per cent.
Matthews was even shifted from his normal power-play position on the left flank to the bumper because he didn’t feel comfortable as a primary shooting option. He produced 15 shots on goal in the three games and hit a post, but head coach Sheldon Keefe conceded Monday that the Rocket Richard front-runner was limited while not adding any goals to his total.
“Well it’s clear that it affects his shot,” said Keefe.
That’s the most dangerous weapon in a toolbox spilling over with them.
The reason the Leafs are comfortable having Matthews play through this particular ailment is because they don’t believe it will be made worse by doing so and they’re seeing him make other contributions to the cause.
However, the compacted schedule is applying additional strain to his recovery.
Matthews played back-to-back Wednesday and Thursday in Edmonton and Vancouver, and then again Saturday to close out the series with the Canucks. The Leafs flew home Sunday, practised Monday and will launch directly into a four-games-in-six-days stretch starting with Tuesday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets.
“These games coming back, you’re playing quick,” said Matthews. “Every other day and stuff. You miss even a week, you’re missing three or four games and playing catch-up. I’m just trying to kind of find my rhythm back.”
His legs and lungs have been there, but not his timing.
As for the wrist and hand?
“It’s been all right,” said Matthews. “I think I still need it to progress a bit.”
Despite the setback, he’s still maintained a healthy lead in the overall goals race — three up on Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Montreal’s Tyler Toffoli, and four ahead of Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat.
But as nice as the individual hardware would look on his trophy shelf, it’s not influencing the decision-making here: Matthews and the Leafs are much more concerned about being in the best position possible to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
There’s a delicate balance to be struck when you have a cornerstone player that wants to be out there competing with his teammates, but the Leafs appear to have the luxury of giving him additional nights off, if needed, after a strong 18-6-2 start to the season.
Keefe pointed out that Matthews still seems to be handling and passing the puck well even if he’s not shooting it with the usual zip. The coach didn’t sound like he had any trepidation about using him throughout the three-game series against the Jets.
“You know so he’s dealing with a couple things,” said Keefe. “He’s been dealing with the mental effect that not being 100 per cent himself has on his game and then the fact he’s missed time. When you miss time you lose your rhythm and it throws you off a little bit.
“He’s found ways to generate chances and shots, he’s made plays for his linemates, so he’s bringing a lot of positive things to us and I think in time it’s the type of injury that will heal itself. He’s just got to work his way through it.”
There is some hope on the horizon if Matthews can get through another busy week. After Sunday’s game in Ottawa, the Leafs have two four-day breaks upcoming and just three games on the schedule over an 11-day period.
“We’ve got this week here and we’ve got some rest coming up next week so hopefully it just progresses throughout and just continues to feel better,” said Matthews. “I’d definitely like to get to see it heal a bit.”
Let that be a warning to opposing goaltenders.
• Wayne Simmonds is back skating a little more than four weeks after suffering a broken wrist. He returned to the ice after having a cast removed while the team was on its recent road trip. Now it’s a matter of regaining function and getting comfortable handling and shooting pucks. The original six-week recovery timeline for Simmonds runs through March 20.
• No. 2 goaltender Jack Campbell had “a really good day today,” according to Keefe. He’s been out a week after tweaking a previous lower-body injury and is listed as day-to-day. Campbell could be an option to back up Frederik Andersen on Tuesday night.