Given the Maple Leaf have long had a flying circus barnstorming element to their offence, the past three games shouldn’t come as a stunner.
But a 7-0 shutout, 12 goals in their most recent four regulation periods, 19 counting the road win a week ago in New York, came with a degree of absenteeism. Leading scorer Auston Matthews was staying close to the bathroom on Saturday, along with defenceman TJ Brodie, as a flu bug kept working its way through the dressing room. Netminder Ilya Samsonov was the first to fade a couple of weeks ago, joined by winger Matthew Knies and defenceman William Lagesson.
Coach Sheldon Keefe described Monday as the team’s first ‘real’ practice in two weeks, with Matthews fully engaged and Brodie able to put in a token appearance, hoping to play the Rangers at home Tuesday.
The Leafs long ago learned to fill in at different battle stations whenever Matthews is out. Sportsnet Stats has their record at 34-19-3 minus Matthews since 2016, a goals-per-game of 3.23 and a power play humming along at 29.0%.
“We’ve proven to be a very resilient group this year — and a deep group with all our injuries on defence,” Keefe said. “Not too many disruptions at forward, but in each situation, defence, forward or goal, we’ve responded and that’s what good teams do.
“You lose a player of Auston’s magnitude, it creates a lot of minutes and opportunity for other people and it gets the team’s attention.”
Matthews is certainly grateful the roof doesn’t fall apart whenever he’s away.
“(Saturday’s 7-0 domination of Pittsburgh) was as clean a game as we’ve played all year,” Matthews said. “The guys stepped up, they were playing different spots and it was great to see that outcome.
“Bobby McMann scoring his first goal, Jonesy (Martin Jones) in net, a few contributing through the lineup.”
Matthews awoke from his pre-game nap on Saturday feeling woozy, made it to the rink intending to play, but was a late scratch.
“Without going into detail about everything, I was throwing up all afternoon,” Matthews said. “Thought I could get it slowed down, but I couldn’t. I felt good today and hopefully this flushes out the whole system.”
Keefe called Brodie’s recovery a slower process.
“Breakfast today was the first real meal he’s had in a couple of days. He felt good enough to get out there today, but we didn’t want to stress him too much. We’ll build him up during the day and see where he’s at tomorrow. But we’re preparing like he’ll be available.”
Knies was set to return Thursday against Columbus, but the extra game off provided a wonderful return, a Gordie Howe hat trick of a goal, assist when he came out gangbusters versus the Pens .
Keefe revealed the second game Knies rested was partly out of an abundance of caution that his first full 82-game NHL season might catch up to the former NCAA star, used to playing half that number and now entrusted with top six forward minutes.
“We talk about it a lot, injuries and sickness will happen throughout a season, obviously to our defence core quite a bit and now a couple of guys fighting illness,” winger Mitch Marner said. “We always talk about having them jump into a lineup, contributing right away and we’ve put a lot of guys through that this year. It’s built up their confidence and our confidence.
“That’s what you need for a successful team, everyone feeling that they’re part of it.”
The NHL holiday roster freeze begins Wednesday through Dec. 27, meaning the Leafs can’t add or subtract to their 23-man group through trades or call-ups except in emergency situations, though general manager Brad Treliving is not obligated to rush through one of many rumoured deals to bulk up the defence.
“We have more than enough bodies healthy and hope we can shake this illness thing,” Keefe said. “There are no new cases the past couple of days with guys coming down with the same symptoms and issues. We hope we’re through that.”
Matthews credited improved play in the Leafs’ zone for triggering goals at the other end.
“We’re breaking out of our zone and closing quicker when the other team’s in our end, limiting their time and space.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements in areas where maybe we weren’t as strong in the beginning of the year. “We’ve been in a lot of tight games, 6-on-5 where we’re battling back. No matter where the game’s at, we’re always trying to push, get that goal and give ourselves a chance to win in overtime or hold a lead.”
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