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Leafs need Matthews to be great, not just really good, down the stretch and in the playoffs

Auston Matthews bounced back from what was arguably the worst game of his career with a dynamite performance Monday against the Anaheim Ducks. And the Maple Leafs will need more of the same from Matthews if they want to make noise down the stretch.

There are many characteristics that go into making a truly great player. And one of them is how he responds to games in which he knows he should have played better. And if Monday night was any indication, Auston Matthews is on a clear and defined path to greatness.

In fact, if Matthews and the Leafs top line plays the way it did in the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-4 win over the Anaheim Ducks Monday night, the Leafs will be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs. But then again, if Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who has had a history of concussions during his NHL career, is out any extended period of time after taking a Corey Perry skate to the head, well, there aren’t too many teams that can absorb a body blow like that one.

The good news for the Leafs is that coach Mike Babcock said he spoke to Andersen after the game and, “I think (he was) fine…He seems good. We’ll see how it goes (Tuesday).” Andersen has had at least two diagnosed concussions during his NHL career and suffered what the Maple Leafs said was a jaw injury that forced him to sit out a game near the end of last season. In the final regular-season game, he collided with Tom Sestito of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but did not miss any time.

So there’s really no telling how serious the injury could be. Perhaps it’s nothing and Andersen will be back in the nets Wednesday night when the Maple Leafs face the Central Division-leading Nashville Predators. If not, the Leafs will likely have to score their way through Andersen’s absence and that’s where Matthews and his linemates come in. After enduring perhaps their worst game of the season – Matthews had the worst possession game of his career – and getting eaten alive by Patrice Bergeron Saturday night in a 4-1 loss to Boston, the Matthews line had arguably its best game of the season against the Ducks. All three members of the line scored, with Matthews and William Nylander getting two goals each and Zach Hyman scoring into the empty net.

What is even more impressive about Matthews is that he’s doing almost all his damage at even strength. Since he came into the NHL last season, no player has scored even close to the 55 goals Matthews has registered in non-power play situations. In fact, 85 percent of Matthews’ 65 career goals to this point have been scored at even strength. And against the Ducks, he did it going nose-to-nose most of the night against Ryan Kesler, a veteran who has been known to take the odd youngster to school and steal his lunch money. But it was Matthews who was dominant in both the faceoff circle and the offensive zone, with both his goals coming in tight.

“Obviously we weren’t happy with our performance (against Boston),” Matthews said. “When everybody’s going, we’re a pretty tough team to compete with. We broke out fast and when we got the puck back behind them, we were able to kind of control the play.”

Matthews and his young teammates are learning as they go along here. There were times last season when Matthews was shielded against the difficult matchups, but this season he’s learning to deal with them a lot better. “We knew coming into the game how it was going to be and they were a big, physical team,” Matthews said, “and that’s the way games are in the playoffs, so the way we responded to that was really positive.”

And they are able to respond that way in part because it’s impossible to hit what you can’t catch. When Matthews and Nylander have their feet moving, they’re dangerous in completely different ways. Matthews can use his quickness to beat people one-on-one in the offensive zone, much the way he did when he zipped around the ancient Kevin Bieksa, then got around the net before Ryan Miller could get across the crease on the Leafs first goal. And Nylander can use his flat-out speed through the neutral zone to get into open spots for scoring opportunities. And as long as the Leaf defensemen can get him the puck, the way Jake Gardiner did brilliantly twice Monday night, he has the potential to be lethal. “We were able to get a lot of speed and try to dominate them in their zone,” Nylander said, “so I think that was important for us.”

Barring a furious run to the finish, the Leafs are pretty much ensconced in third place in the Atlantic Division – Boston is three points ahead with five games in hand and Tampa Bay is eight ahead with three in hand – so it’s important they continue to approach games as though they’re still important. Because they are. If the remainder of the season is indeed a dress rehearsal for the first round of the playoffs against a team that will likely be favored, it will help if Matthews’ line continues to establish itself consistently as a force.

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