The Maple Leafs have a winning record without Auston Matthews, but that doesn’t mean they’re okay with news he’s out for the next three weeks.
The NHL’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner the past two years, second in goals on Toronto so far this season and third in points, will be out until late February with a knee sprain the club announced Friday morning.
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The silver lining, as mentioned, is the club’s mark of 31-16-2 when he’s hurt or suspended, and that the NHL all-star break will bridge eight days off for the team in his recovery time.
Matthews, who hurt the knee at some point during Wednesday’s 3-2 overtime win over the Rangers, will miss three home games: Friday versus Ottawa, Sunday against Washington and the team’s last pre-break game, when Boston is in town Wednesday. The Leafs then play just three times up to Feb. 18.
How the knee was damaged is a mystery for now.
“I’m not certain specifically, if it was one incident,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I noticed him in some discomfort at times during the game, but didn’t think much of it. It was still sore during (Thursday’s day off) so they brought him in for an MRI.”
Keefe said the knee issue is not related to any previous injuries.
John Tavares will be centring Matthew’s line with Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting, while Pontus Holmberg is promoted to replace Tavares between the hot William Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok in an all-Swedish unit. Alex Kerfoot will slide over as fourth line centre in place of Holmberg.
“There’s an opportunity there for Holmberg, he’s shown he can help us,” Keefe said. “This is an option we haven’t used yet, save for a couple of shifts here or there.”
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Keefe didn’t want to get too far into analyzing the Leafs’ success sans Matthews, other than they’ve come through a high instance of injuries throughout this season, including both goaltenders, most of the defence and yet maintained a record of 30-11-8.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Marner said of Matthews. “But we have a lot of skill and talent in our lineup. They can’t necessarily (replace Matthews), but can do a very good job. Just make sure everyone steps up.”
Tavares says the Leafs must keep playing to “team identity” without their star.
“It shows our depth and that guys (contribute) in various ways. Not to the way Auston impacts the game. But just what they bring to the table and how that plays into our identity. That will be tested again.”
Tavares said the power play, with Michael Bunting likely promoted to the first unit, will have to be in sync, noting Matthews draws a lot of attention from penalty killers to open room for others.
“Things will change from a pressure standpoint, the different looks we get and breaking the puck out,” Tavares reasoned. “We have to adjust on the fly.”
The injury also means Matthews will be unable to join Marner at the all-star game in Sunrise, Fla., but before anyone in Toronto could mount a campaign for Nylander to go in his stead, the NHL announced Aleksander Barkov of the host Panthers would be Matthew’s replacement.
The Leafs will have ex-Senator Matt Murray in net Friday, an ideal time to reinstate him after Ilya Samsonov got on a roll at home following Murray getting pulled Jan. 17 against Florida.
Before that hiccup, Murray’s record of 11-5-2 was one more win than his best of two seasons with the Senators. In 2021-22 he was injured, won just five of 20 games and was demoted at one stage. He signed a multi-year deal with the Leafs where he had ties to Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas.
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Without delving into the Senators’ various problems the past two seasons, the Leafs think Murray has benefitted just from being a winning team again as he was in Pittsburgh when he broke in.
“I’m sure that’s helped,” Marner said. “Our team has a lot of guys who are here for your well-being, checking up on you.
“Our goalies get a lot of love from our trainers and sports science guys making sure they’re doing the right thing.”
“Winning cures a lot of things,” Keefe added. “In terms emotions of the game, of your mood of coming to the rink every day.
“Matt having the (groin) injury at the start of the year was a stumble for him. But since then he’s been really consistent with his new team and his habits.
“Matt’s put his work in, he’s a proud guy. But regardless of the opponent, it was going to be him tonight.”
Keefe’s Leafs have a 23-point lead on Ottawa in the division standings, but teams below the playoff line have given Toronto trouble.
It’s also another installment of the Battle Of Ontario.
“It seems we always get the best version of Ottawa,” Keefe said. “There are lots of things for us to be concerned with.”