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Auston Matthews reinvigorated as Maple Leafs tinker with top six

SEATTLE – As the Toronto Maple Leafs embark on a weeklong tour of the West, a road trip that will stretch past the March 3 trade deadline, the organization’s mission is twofold.

General manager Kyle Dubas — embroiled in one of the most memorable Eastern Conference arms races — must scour the market to finalize the most optimal playoff roster.

And coach Sheldon Keefe must figure out how to best deploy his wealth of riches up front while balancing out his blue line as best as possible.

The parts are fantastic, but can the sum soar even greater?

Keefe’s four-game sample of the Ontario Line (John Tavares–Ryan O’Reilly–Mitch Marner) yielded fine results, save for one nitpicky item.

Toronto’s top centre, Auston Matthews, had not scored a goal since the O’Reilly trade.

So, while ostensibly Keefe’s new second-line experiment of Tavares–O’Reilly–William Nylander was the product of the coach wishing to see O’Reilly and Nylander develop chemistry too, make no mistake that the Leafs are trying to jolt Matthews back to his 2022 Hart Trophy champion offensive form.

And there is no better way to do that than reuniting him with the selfless Marner, every Leaf’s favourite winger.

“Yeah, it’s always fun,” Matthews said. “It’s pretty natural for your confidence to hinder at times when the puck’s not going in and stuff like that. It’s easy to get discouraged.

“It’s a game of inches sometimes.”

In the Maple Leafs’ dominant 5-1 cruise over the Seattle Kraken Sunday, Keefe’s second option hit on all cylinders.

Marner set up Matthews for two net-front tap-ins, helping the two-time Rocket winner hop back on a 40-goal pace. Tavares netted goal 27, already tying last season’s total in 19 fewer appearances. Nylander extended his point streak to seven games (5-9–13). And, when on the ice 5-on-5, the Leafs’ top six outscored Seattle 5-1.

“Great to see. Obviously, that’s the intent when you make the change. And you’re thrilled to see it come together like that, in terms of how they score, in terms of the jump Auston had here tonight, being all around the net and all around the puck,” Keefe said.

“Auston’s had a number of chances that just haven’t gone in for him this year…. So, it magnifies everything there. And then the moment it doesn’t go in for you, you start to press or simplify things a little bit. Maybe you simplify too much and get away from the things that make you really go.

“We’re looking for that line to really start to click in terms of how they move the puck and how they generate chances and generate momentum for our team. And I think the timing is right to give them another go.”

Matthews was all-time in 2021, topping the league in goals (60, five more than the field) and even-strength goals (44, eight more than the field).

This season, he’s been human.

Matthews is tied for 17th in goals (28) and 25th in even-strength goals (18).

His shooting percentage has sunk to a career-low 12.8 per cent, the ‘wow’ moments haven’t popped as often, and at times he’s pushed through an undisclosed nagging injury.

“You’re always managing things. But, no, I don’t think it’s as much of an issue at all for him. He’s feeling good in that regard,” Keefe said.

“I mean, he’s still played really well at times. I think the more pucks we can get him in good areas and give him more shots (will help). I don’t think it’s necessarily a confidence thing, but there’s a rhythm to it. That’s important for offensive players to feel.”

Matthews hasn’t cheated for offence during these uncharacteristic dry spells.

“If anything, he’s dug in even harder defensively to have greater impacts that way,” Keefe says. “That’s what has impressed me most. He hasn’t flinched in terms of his commitment away from the puck.”

It was with the puck, however, that Matthews appeared reenergized alongside Marner — who rode shotgun on his greatest goal-scoring campaigns.

There is a sneaking suspicion that is how the faces of the franchise will line up come Game 83.

“He’s going to capitalize. He’s just too good of a player. You’re talking about a top-two, top-three player in the world,” Tavares says.

“So, part of the journey. He continues to battle hard. I think that’s what’s really impressive is how level-headed he stays, and just the work ethic and the commitment.”

Keefe has committed to experimenting with different top-six configurations in segments, giving each look a heathy run regardless of results, with an eye toward optimizing his forward lines by the beginning of April.

On this trip, that’s good news for Matthews, whose stick tape should benefit from more of Marner’s magic.

“It always feels good to see it go in. I mean, I can’t lie,” Matthews said. “You see it go in, I think you just get a little extra pep in your step.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• O’Reilly has gone berserk in the face-off dot since being traded north.

The centreman is an incredible – unsustainable? – 52-19 (73.2 per cent) since joining the Leafs.

“He’s definitely feeling it,” Keefe says.

O’Reilly wields a 110 flex. He found comfort in the less-flexible weapons from childhood, when he was forced to play with his older brother Cal’s hand-me-downs.

“One of the stiffer sticks you’ll see guys using,” he says. “When I go stick-on-stick with a guy who’s got an 85 flex, it helps me get that first swipe.”

• Original Kraken captain Mark Giordano now stands along as the NHL’s shot block king* with 2,046 blocked shots, edging out pal Kris Russell. San Jose’s Marc-Edouard Vlasic (2,007) has the second most among active players.

Alexander Edler, Ryan Suter, John Carlson, and Alex Pietrangelo all have more than 1,700 and counting. (Poor Andy Greene retired with 1,999 blocks — one short of joining the four-man Club 2,000.)

He was given the player-of-the-game belt and the game puck for his achievement.

“It’s something I’m definitely proud of. I think it shows you care in trying to do the right thing for the team,” Giordano said. “It’s not a glamorous record by any means. But I think it speaks to playing a long time and playing hard and playing the right way.”

• Despite not killing penalties, Matthews leads all NHL forwards in shot blocks (75), something he and Giordano joke about.

“He does block a lot of shots because he reads the play so well, and he’s in the right spot a lot. So, yeah, we have some chirps,” Giordano says. “It’s harder to get blocks as a forward, obviously, so it’s pretty impressive too.”

Matthews says he mostly gets in front of “sifters from the point,” which aren’t too painful and often lead to a rush the other way.

“He reads plays so well,” O’Reilly says. “Makes a little block — and he’s gone.”

“Sometimes you just have to get in front of one and eat one,” Matthews explains. “And it’s not going to feel great.”

• Tanner Jeannot, a pending RFA, was dealt to the Lightning for Cal Foote plus five draft picks: a top-10-protected first-rounder in 2025, a second-rounder in 2024, plus third-, fourth- and fifth-rounders in 2023.

The 25-year-old is a 6-foot-2, 208-pound power forward whose bruising game is tailor-made for the postseason.

He will wreak havoc on Toronto defencemen on the forecheck in Round 1.

• It’s been 40 days and 40 nights since Matt Murray (ankle) tended goal for the Maple Leafs. Does he expect to participate in this week’s Edmonton-Calgary back-to-back?


Murray says he is taking his recovery day by day and will leave the decision up to the coaching and medical staffs.

A better question might be: Does Dubas want to see Murray play hockey before not trading for a goalie by Friday?


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