His first period, when he dished out an incredible assist, followed by a laser-guided goal? Auston Matthews felt terrible. The fact he has scored in the first game of every NHL season and now every first game back from injury? “Coincidence.”
Matthews did say that he felt he got his legs under him by the third period in Toronto’s 5-3 win over the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday night, but his return from a shoulder injury that cost him 14 games was quite the sight for all involved.
Even with William Nylander still unsigned, the Maple Leafs looked unstoppable on the power play, as The Unfair Unit of Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly reunited to strafe the Sharks twice in the first 12 minutes of the game.
“There’s just so many weapons,” Matthews said. “On the first goal they were really taking away Mitch, and Mitch found me – you can only cover so many guys; obviously it’s 5-on-4 so somebody’s bound to be open – he made a play to me and Johnny was wide open back-door.”
While the Maple Leafs had been doing fine without Matthews in the lineup, his presence undoubtedly changes the complexion of the squad. Because of his size, speed and puckhandling skills, enemy defenses are forced to react in uncomfortable ways. The danger is also spread out more, given that Tavares and Marner play on a different line. So it’s probably indicative that after earning just one power play opportunity in the past two games, the Leafs went to the man advantage four times against San Jose, scoring on three of those chances.
“His skill set is no secret,” Tavares said. “The last fews days he had great jump in practice and you can see what makes him a special player. It’s great to be around. I can pick things up and learn from him and hopefully I can do the same for him. When you’re around guys like him, it drives the team and it drives you individually.”
And that power play is something to behold, now that the gang’s all back together.
“We’re moving the puck quick and getting pucks to the net,” Marner said. “Getting Auston back, he’s pretty deadly on that flank – everybody knows he has a pretty good shot. We knew they were going to come with a lot of pressure, so we wanted to move the puck quick and outnumber at the net.”
While Toronto still needs to work on defense (and 5-on-5 play was not great against the Sharks either), the line combinations that coach Mike Babcock can trot out are quite impressive these days. Matthews played with Andreas Johnsson for the first time Wednesday night and lauded the young Swede for his speed, skill and tenacity. Those traits can also describe Kasperi Kapanen, who has been riding shotgun with Matthews all season and reaped the benefits of playing with such an elite center. Tavares, Marner and Zach Hyman have been a very effective unit, which brings up this scenario: if and when Nylander returns, do the Leafs start him on a devastating third line with Kadri and Patrick Marleau? Finding room for all your talent is a pretty nice problem to have.
“You look up and down our lineup, it doesn’t really matter what line you’re on,” Matthews said. “You’re going to play with guys who are skilled, who work hard and can make plays.”
But most important for Matthews is the fact that he’s back, period. Given how hot he started the season, it was unfortunate to see him on the shelf and the big center took no pleasure in having the extra time off.
“It eats away at you when you’re just watching your team play,” Matthews said. “As of late we’ve been playing pretty well and we want to continue that. It’s nice to back and be a part of it.”