Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans, make no mistake about it. Auston Matthews is taking over this team. On Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres, Auston Matthews did two things. First, he scored his 45th goal of the year in the 5-2 loss. Second, he got frustrated for whatever reason and took it out on an opponent.
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The first action is not so odd for Matthews. Scoring goals is his forte. The second action is new. And, although I’m not such a fan of violence on the ice, I am a fan of Matthews showing his frustration. I believe it’s part of his growth as a player and a leader on this team.
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In short, he’s laying his claim that he’s taking over. He’s not going to rely on anyone else to do it. He’s stepping up. While I’m not so crass as to say that it’s about time, at the same time I’m happy enough for the explosion of frustration or anger if you will; however, I’m choosing to see it in the bigger picture. I call it leadership.
The Events of Sunday’s Game
During the game on Sunday, Matthews gave his team a 2-1 lead early in the second period with a goal that added to his NHL-leading total. Then, in the third period, in a scrum, Matthews cross-checked Rasmus Dahlin’s neck or chin.
The goal was added to Matthews’ total and on Monday he had a hearing with the NHL Department of Player Safety. He did, in fact, receive supplemental discipline for the cross-check. Supplemental because both he and Dahlin had received two-minute penalties on the play.
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Although Dahlin was not injured and Matthews has no prior history and had never been suspended, obviously the forceful use of his stick apparently tipped the scales and is why he got two games. Matthews will be able to return on March 19 against the Nashville Predators.
The First Suspension of Matthews’ Career and the First Display of Anger
The suspension was the first of Matthews’ career; and, it might or might not be his last. But perhaps more telling is that it’s the first time he’s shown the kind of anger that fights back. That’s the point. He’s starting to fight back. And, while I might be wrong, I believe that fight back will bode well for this team.
At least I hope. Gone are the days of Matthews capitulating on being rag-dolled behind the net so he could draw a penalty. Gone are the days of rolling his eyes while listening to Maple Leafs’ media writers after a tough playoff loss asking him if his line-mate Mitch Marner should be traded.
Matthews Is Not Going to Take It Anymore
As I say, I’m not a fan of fighting in hockey. But I am a fan of the Mark Messier style of leadership, and I think this Maple Leafs’ team will benefit from some emotional leadership. And I think Matthews is the perfect – in fact, perhaps the only – person who can do it.
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I love John Tavares and I’m glad he’s on the team. But he isn’t the kind of leader that Matthews can be, and I think now, will be. Sure it will cost two games and they might be important games. But don’t NHL teams have a way of working hard to cover for a teammate who’s taken a penalty for something they believed needed to be done?
Maple Leafs’ fans will see how the team responds to its best player and leader stepping out to say “I’m angry and I’m not taking it anymore.” I also have to believe that this is not just a message about him. It’s not just about the fact that he’s upset about not getting what should have been an obvious penalty call when his stick was held during overtime of the Arizona Coyotes game that ended in another loss. This is about his team.
I’m hoping that Matthews is sending a clear message about his team. He’s showing his own deep emotional investment in this team. And, he’s fighting back.
It’s Time to See What Happens with the Maple Leafs
The next two games are tough games against a surging Dallas Stars team and a strong Carolina Hurricanes team. First, win or lose, let’s see how his teammates respond. Will they follow his lead and also start to fight back? Will they fold and wait for their best player to return?
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If it’s the former, watch out NHL. With Matthews as both its best player and its emotional leader, this Maple Leafs’ team might become a force this season. No, I’m not happy with the cross-check. But, if I’m right in what this might mean to this team’s future, I’m exceedingly pleased.
Great goalies or not, this team could be on the rise.