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Matthews has been a non-factor for Maple Leafs, but he needs to step up now

Through much of the opening round series against the Bruins, Auston Matthews has been invisible. If ever there was a time for the Maple Leafs' franchise center to step up, though, that time is now.

There is something we have to get out of the way at the outset. What you are about to read is not an indictment of Auston Matthews as a hockey player. It is not an indictment of his future, his character or his abilities. It is, however, an indictment of his play so far in the Toronto Maple Leafs first-round series against the Boston Bruins.

It has not been very good. For three-and-a-half of the first four games of this series, Auston Matthews has been missing in action. William Nylander, who at the moment is screaming for a bridge deal this summer instead of a long-term contract, has been even worse. But Nylander was not chosen first overall, was not anointed the savior of the franchise. Matthews was and as such, he is held to a higher standard than his teammates. Nobody said life is fair all the time.

As Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said after his team’s 4-1 loss in Game 4 that put his team down 3-1 in the series, everything was set up for the Leafs, and Matthews, to have success in the game. Patrice Bergeron was a late scratch, which meant Matthews had to deal with Riley Nash instead. He won 11 of 14 faceoffs, which meant he and his team started with the puck 79 percent of the time, but aside from that, Matthews was a non-factor.

“The great thing about playoff team and being a young guy, you get lots of lessons,” Babcock said. “And nobody is more aware of that than he is, I can tell you that. I’m assuming that he thought he was going to come in tonight and dominate the game. That’s what I thought and I thought the same for Willie (Nylander). That didn’t happen. But the other people you’re playing against are pros and they’re trying too and they’re competitive. There’s regular season competitiveness and there’s first round of the Stanley Cup playoff competitiveness and it keeps amping up all the way through. The reality is when you leave here tonight…you’ve got time to evaluate yourself and those guys are pretty honest.”

If Matthews is being honest with himself, he’ll admit that he hasn’t been at his best. It’s difficult to know what his feelings are because he was allowed to keep them to himself. Although he was summoned after the game for post-game comments, the Leafs chose to allow him not to make himself available. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called coddling. Having to face the music and explain his lack of production would have been a good learning experience for Matthews. Instead, the Leafs chose to shield him from any criticism, which can sometimes lead to the dreaded Blue and White Disease former coach Ron Wilson used to talk about all the time.

(The wildcard in all of this, of course, would be if we found out after the series that Matthews was playing through an injury, which is entirely possible based on his lack of involvement. There is no way the Leafs would admit to anything mid-series, so there’s really no point in even asking.)

It would be unfair to pin this all on Matthews. His winger Nylander has been even more ineffective. The Leafs were victimized in Game 4 by two very ill-advised pinches by defensemen and their collective effort in Games 1 and 2 could be described as nothing short of putrid. But it is indeed telling that Zach Hyman has been by far the best player on his line. Mitch Marner is using this series as his playoff coming-out party and is dangerous every time he steps on the ice. Patrick Marleau, feeding off his young center, is making things happen.

But it is most telling when Babcock says things like this: “I thought our fourth line dominated the game tonight. I thought they were really good.”

If the Leafs have any hope of getting back into this series, the way they did in 2013 when they were down to the Bruins by the same 3-1 deficit only to extend the series to Game 7, they’ll need to find the speed they had in Game 3 and the stretch passes that seemed to hit all the intended sticks. But more than anything, No. 34 has to be a lot better and No. 29 has to rise from the abyss. It should help that Nazem Kadri, who was banished for the past three games, will be back in the Leafs lineup Saturday night in Boston. As defenseman Ron Hainsey said, having a 30-goal centerman who can play a shutdown role and provide some sandpaper is a welcomed addition to the group.

There is no word on the extent of Bergeron’s upper-body injury, but the Bruins are hopeful he’ll be available for Game 5. The Bruins are, and have been, just fine without Bergeron in the lineup. It’s also interesting to note that the top line was on the ice for two Bruin goals, one with Nash in the middle and the other with Sean Kuraly at the pivot position. And the Bruins didn’t even need their vaunted power play in Game 5, since the Leafs didn’t take a single penalty.

“They’ve got a great team…they’re deep,” Hainsey said. “It wasn’t like we were doing cartwheels in here when we found out he wasn’t playing and it wasn’t like we thought we were going to have an easy night here.”

The Bruins proved when Bergeron went down with a foot injury earlier this season that they could thrive without their best player. The Leafs do not have that luxury at the moment. So Auston Matthews has no choice at this point but to show up.

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