By DAVID SHOALTS
Thursday, November 29, 2018
TORONTO -- Maybe, just maybe, Auston Matthews didn't want his teammates to get any ideas about doing without him.
After he was lost to a shoulder injury on Oct. 27, Matthews saw the Toronto Maple Leafs run up a 9-5 record in his absence. So he once again made sure his presence was noted quickly when he returned to NHL action on Wednesday night in the Leafs' 5-3 win over the San Jose Sharks, their third consecutive triumph and seventh in their past nine games.
It took 3 minutes and 38 seconds for Matthews to get his first point after 14 games on the shelf.
Almost eight minutes after that he had his first goal, which, like his assist, came on the power play, making it four out of four times he scored in his first game back after being injured. Then he added a second goal in the third period to ice the night.
In addition to that, Matthews was dangerous every time he was on the ice with linemates Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson. Matthews also bolstered the Leafs' power play, which saw him return to the stacked first unit. The Toronto power play produced goals on all three of its opportunities in the opening periods and took a 4-2 lead into the third.
John Tavares and Mitch Marner also made sure their presence was felt. Tavares scored twice and Marner had three assists, making it quite a night for the Leafs' star players. Patrick Marleau scored the other Leafs goal. Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski and Melker Karlsson scored for the Sharks.
On the defensive side of things, Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen was once again solid.
The Leafs were outshot by the Sharks but Andersen picked up his league-leading 14th win.
Matthews claimed not to know why he is able to score so quickly after getting back into action.
"I don't know. I think maybe just the excitement of being back out there with the guys," he told Sportsnet's Shawn McKenzie at the end of the first period. "It's just nice to be back out there with the guys on my team."
It was as if he was never away.
From his first shift, Matthews was skating hard and dangling the puck on his stick. He and Kapanen, who worked well together until Matthews injured his shoulder on Oct. 27, picked up right where they left off. Johnsson also kept pace, as it was his shot Matthews deflected for the third-period goal.
The Sharks were not too shabby on the power play themselves, scoring twice with the man-advantage, but found themselves outdone by the Leafs. San Jose came into the game with the NHL's best penalty-killing unit, with a success rate of 89.3 per cent. Then the Leafs chewed it up with three goals in three chances in the first two periods.
The first one, early in the opening period, marked the return of the Leafs' powerful first unit. Matthews, Tavares, Kadri, Marner and Morgan Rielly took a few seconds to get settled but then started tossing the puck around the Sharks zone as if they owned it.
Rielly fired the puck from the left point across to Marner at the right one. He then zipped a hard diagonal pass across to Matthews, in his familiar post at the left faceoff circle. Matthews waited a beat for Sharks goaltender Aaron Dell to commit and then snapped the puck through the slot to Tavares, who scored his first goal of the night into the open side of the net at 3:38.
The Sharks answered with a power-play goal of their own at 10:40 from Hertl. That one was a gift from Leafs defenceman Travis Dermott, who had Kevin Labanc's hard pass hit his stick. But instead of corralling the puck or knocking it away, Dermott managed to slow it down and redirect the puck right on Hertl's stick.
No matter, the Leafs seemed to say. The Sharks took a penalty 22 seconds after their goal and 17 seconds after that, Matthews had his 11th goal of the season. It was pretty much a replay of his previous power-play goals, as he again took a pass in the left faceoff circle from Rielly. Matthews settled the puck on his stick and then ripped a wrist shot just under the crossbar.
There was a slight difference for Matthews this time. In the first month of the season he impressed everyone with his quick release in that situation. On this goal, he shifted the puck back and forth on his stick before shooting, not that Dell had any chance to stop it.
A couple of days before the game, Matthews said after a Leafs practice he felt good about his shot but wasn't sure it was at the same standard it was before his injury.
"It felt good today. I don't know, maybe Freddy [Andersen] was giving me a couple there in warm-ups," Matthews said. "The more practices and games you get into, you get back to feeling like yourself. All that stuff will come along in time."
Well, it seems it came along in 11 minutes and 19 seconds.
Toronto Maple Leafs centre John Tavares scores on San Jose Sharks goaltender Aaron Dell during their matchup in Toronto on Wednesday. Tavares had two goals.
NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS