Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews Emerging from the Chaos

Lets start with three “F’s.” It was a frustrating, a funny (as in odd), and a fantastic week for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ star center Auston Matthews. Yet, Matthews seems to have emerged from both the chaos of the week and of last night’s 4-3 overtime victory over the Winnipeg Jets by getting both himself and his team back on track as the North Division’s leading team.

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews Is Undergoing a Transformation

In this post, I’ll review both Matthews’ past two weeks and then last night’s game as a way to outline the kind of chaos the 23-year-old young star has dealt with. Matthews missed his team’s games both on the 27th of February and the 1st of March with a wrist injury. After missing two games, he returned.

After he returned, it was obvious he wasn’t the same player and went he three games without scoring a single point. Something was wrong.

Sheldon Keefe Comes to Auston Matthews’ Defense

In fact, on March 8 Matthews’ head coach Sheldon Keefe did something quite rare in my experience watching coaches discuss their players’ injuries. He fessed up that Matthews had been hurting since the beginning of the season and that the injury was now likely affecting his play.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

As well, he also noted that it had been difficult for the young player to deal with the injury mentally. Still, Keefe was quick to reassure Maple Leafs’ fans and others that Matthews was still producing on the ice and added value to the team.

In itself, when I first read Keefe’s explanation of Matthews injury, I was quite surprised that he was so forthcoming. Usually, you get something exceedingly vague such as “upper-body” or “lower-body” injury. I also had a feeling at the time that Keefe was quite aware that he was the coach in Toronto and not in a market such as, for example, Arizona or Anaheim. Even Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice spoke about what he learned about coaching in Toronto in an interview this week. It’s different.

Keefe actually did what amounted to a commercial for his young star. It struck me that he was hoping that, although he didn’t say it clearly, fans and others should give Matthews some space even if he wasn’t scoring. Again, Keefe was very clear that Matthews added other value to the team and the team was better with him in the line-up even though he wasn’t 100%.

Two games ago, Matthews emerged both from whatever chaos he was dealing with as a result of his wrist injury and the frustration Keefe alluded to when he scored two goals in the team’s first game against the Jets. Then, it last night’s game, Matthews emerged from the chaos of an overtime scramble to break in on Connor Hellebuyck for his great goal.

Matthews Regains His Goal-Scoring Pace Against the Winnipeg Jets

After going five games without a goal and a couple of missed games because of his wrist injury, Auston Matthews broke his personal goal-scoring drought in a big way on Tuesday night with two goals against the Jets. One goal came on the power play near the end of the first period and the other near the end of the third period.

Although it was good for Matthews to get onto the score sheet again, both goals were not enough to move his team out of their loss column and the Jets won the game 4-3. Still he gave his team a chance to beat the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Hellebuyck. Thos goals were Matthews’ 19th and 20th of the season (he also has 13 assists) in 24 games this season. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On Wednesday, Matthews was given a maintenance day off from practice to allow him to be fresh for last night’s game. Because of the concern for Matthews’ injury, head coach Keefe explained Matthews’ day off by saying, “I think he’s showing that while it effects different areas of his game, he’s still able to do a lot of different things out there. He wanted to skate today, but we thought it was a good opportunity for him to take a rest day.”

Matthews Emerges from the Chaos of the Scramble to Score the Game-Winner

Overtime started with a long, frenetic shift. When Maple Leafs’ defenseman Morgan Rielly broke his stick, the team had to scramble to hold on. However, emerging from the chaotic activity, Matthews received a pass heading out of the defensive zone. He roofed a backhander over Hellebuyck’s shoulder.

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As Matthews noted, “There was a lot of chaos … it happened so fast. We’d been out there for a while, they’d been out there for a while.”

Matthews was obviously rested and Keefe played him just under 25 minutes on the night. His beautiful overtime goal beat the Jets by a 4-3 score. The goal broke the Maple Leafs’ three-game losing streak.

Sheldon Keefe; John Tavares
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe talks to captain John Tavares (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

Matthews also had the primary assist on his line-partner Mitch Marner’s goal; and, when the game ended, he now sits with 21 goals and 14 assists in the 24 games he’s played this season. That puts him in first place in goal scoring (five ahead of Connor McDavid) and in fifth place in the NHL’s scoring leader board (13 points behind McDavid’s 48 points). By the way, Matthews leads the NHL now with seven game-winning goals.

The Overtime Goal Demonstrated Matthews’ Skill

Matthews’ overtime goal was one of the prettiest goals of the season – if you haven’t seen it, Matthew Barzal’s between-the-legs goal was amazing – and showed just how great Matthew’s hands are at controlling the puck. His moves stopped Hellebuyck in his tracks and left the Jets’ goalie standing still. It wasn’t that Hellebuyck made a mistake; it’s more that Matthews froze him in time. You can see the overtime goal in the following video.

Can Matthews Reach 50 Goals in 50 Games?

Matthews’ two stellar games in a row now, after five games off the goal score sheet, will likely bring back some talk of his being able to reach 50 goals in 50 games. To do so, he’s going to need some catch up – as in three additional multiple-goal games. He’ll also need to avoid another injury. Fans can’t know how that will go; however, fans can know that Matthews is on a career pace for scoring. It’s his best season ever.

That’s one story on Matthews’ great season. Perhaps the bigger story is that Maple Leafs fans have seen a different side to both Matthews and Keefe. Matthews obviously desires to be the best player he can be and it troubles him when he doesn’t play to his expectations. Keefe goes to bat for his players and serves as a buffer between them and what can be both a wonderful and a difficult hockey market to play in – Toronto.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Moves Suggest Matthews Could be Out a While

I appreciated both Matthews’ human vulnerability and Keefe’s protective mentality. I never saw former head coach Mike Babcock display a similar disposition with – for example – Jake Gardiner a couple of years ago when Gardiner was playing with a bad back and the Maple Leafs’ fans booed him relentlessly for his on-ice mistakes.

Are we seeing a kinder and gentler Maple Leafs’ locker room – even made more human with the addition of Joe Thornton’s views about hockey and life.

By the way, after the game Keefe obviously felt he could change his tune when he noted to the media about Matthews, “Elite talent. He’s a star. That’s what they do.”