Matthews scores winner, adds assist in return from injury as Maple Leafs cruise past Chicago
Sheldon Keefe has asked his players to take more ownership in key moments.
Auston Matthews — back in the Maple Leafs’ lineup following an injury absence — and William Nylander took their head coach’s words to heart early on Wednesday.
Nine seconds later, Toronto was ahead.
“You watch any experienced and championship-calibre team, their people are taking charge of different situations,” Keefe said.
“That’s what you love to see — those guys taking that initiative.”
Nylander scored on a set play moments after puck drop as part of a three-point performance and Matthews had a goal to accent a two-point night after three weeks on the shelf in the Leafs’ 5-2 victory over Chicago in Toronto.
WATCH | Matthews returns to lineup, scores winner against Chicago:
The slick sequence on the opening faceoff saw Matthews win the draw back to T.J. Brodie, who in turn fed Morgan Rielly. He then hit a streaking Nylander as Chicago defenceman Jake McCabe lost his footing.
The winger moved in alone on Petr Mrazek and appeared to run out of room before banking his 30th goal of the season in off the former Leafs netminder from a tight angle.
The Swede, who has five points in two games, also nearly ran out of room.
“I think I waited too much,” Nylander added with a smile. “Lucky that it slipped by his skate there on the post.”
That was Willy fast 😎 <a href=”https://t.co/fm7Q5JQITQ”>pic.twitter.com/fm7Q5JQITQ</a>
John Tavares and Rasmus Sandin, with a goal and an assist each, and Connor Timmins provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (33-14-8). Ilya Samsonov made 27 saves.
Keefe was pleased with the result following Saturday’s ugly 4-3 home-ice loss to last-place Columbus, but didn’t take much more from a game against a rebuilding opponent playing for the second time in as many nights.
“Tired team in here and a back-to-back,” he said. “I didn’t think the game had much life to it. Not what you come to expect in terms of what it’s like to play in the NHL.
Sam Lafferty and Philipp Kurashev replied for Chicago (16-32-5), which got 37 stops from Mrazek.
“Our guys fought to the end,” Chicago rookie head coach Luke Richardson said. “There was no give-up.”
Last season’s Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP and the first player to register a 60-goal campaign in a decade, Matthews suffered a knee sprain Jan. 25, but only missed five games thanks to the all-star break and Toronto’s bye week.
“The adrenalin kicks in,” Matthews said. “My energy faded a little bit throughout the game.
“For the most part, I felt pretty good.”
Leapfrogged by Tampa Bay for second in the Atlantic Division following the Columbus loss, the Leafs went ahead on that early Nylander goal, but the visitors got it right back on the game’s second shot 53 seconds later when Lafferty jumped on a turnover to score his ninth.
Sandin restored Toronto’s lead later in the period with his fourth on a shot that hit a Chicago stick and fooled Mrazek, who signed with the Leafs in the summer of 2021 before getting traded to the Windy City less than a year later.
“When we had some breakdowns or they responded … our response was better,” Tavares said. “We want to be able to grab the game back and grab momentum.”
Alexander Kerfoot appeared to give Toronto a 3-1 lead just 15 seconds later only to have Chicago correctly challenge for offside before Matthews ripped his 26th off a Nylander feed.
“Huge boost to get him back,” Tavares said of the Leafs’ best player. “Just unbelievable the way he picks the corner.”
Chicago got back within one early in the second when Kurashev blasted his eighth.
Tavares restored the two-goal advantage off a Mrazek miscue to score his 24th.
JOHNNY ON THE SPOT! <a href=”https://t.co/L0mYoHSPAG”>pic.twitter.com/L0mYoHSPAG</a>
Timmins added his second on a one-timer for a 5-2 lead through 40 minutes before the teams played an even third period to bring a night that largely lacked energy and emotion to a close.
“We’re not going to evaluate too much in terms of anything good, anything bad,” Keefe said.
“We’re gonna wash it and move on.”
The goal was the also fourth-fastest to start a game in franchise history behind only Charlie Conacher in 1932 (seven seconds), Mitch Marner in 2019 (seven seconds) and Ted Kennedy in 1953 (eight seconds).
Leafs talk Kane, Toews
With both their contracts set to expire July 1, Chicago icons Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews could be moving on before the trade deadline — if they waive their no-movement clauses.
Tavares was asked before the game if it’s difficult to envision Kane and Toews in different uniforms.
“I don’t think you really ever thought it was going to possibly come to that point,” he said. “But when you’re seeing it from the outside — just the way they’ve been talking about it, handling it in their situation now — that’s becoming more and more likely.”
Chicago visits Ottawa on Friday, while Toronto hosts Montreal on Saturday.
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