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There's a calm in the new-era LeafLand, even if Matthews is ailing

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Friday, November 10, 2017 – Page S1

TORONTO -- The cone of silence that descends over LeafLand in-season is so impermeable that William Nylander, a Swede and presumptive sports enthusiast, had to be told that Sweden is in a playoff on Friday to qualify for next summer's World Cup.

"I'm not aware of that," Nylander said flatly.

Big game. It's against Italy and all.

"Hm. I'll have to look out for that," Nylander said, in a tone that suggested he would probably not be looking out for that.

Then he turned and walked to the back, one supposes to kneel down at a shrine to Auston Matthews's aching back (if that indeed is the "upper-body injury" aggravating him) and say a few prayers.

Despite uninspiring play of late, a couple of fortunate wins have kept things light. Even Matthews's absence is being treated more like an inconvenience than a crisis. The less said about it, the better.

When Mike Babcock was asked about Matthews's scratch from Thursday's practice, the sophomore centre's third day off in a row, the coach referred to it as a "maintenance day."

"I'm not going to give you an update every day," Babcock said.

"He's day-to-day."

If he's day-to-day, how will you avoid giving an up ... never mind.

Deploying his usual professional obscurantism, Babcock has been sending mixed messages on the severity of Matthews's injury.

After Wednesday's win over Minnesota, he didn't "have a clue" when Matthews might return.

Which sounds bad.

Twelve or so hours later, things had improved to, "It's not serious, but it's something we have to take care of."

Which sounds a lot better.

The truth is probably where it's usually to be found - somewhere in between. The Leafs play home-andaway against Boston on Friday and Saturday, followed by a four-day break. If Matthews hasn't returned in a week's time against New Jersey, that's when everyone can really start to worry.

Meanwhile, there is a hopeful sense of water being successfully trod and seats being kept warm.

The training staff laid a folded jersey on Matthews's chair on Thursday, as though he might change his mind at the last minute and get out on the ice.

When Patrick Marleau was asked about shifting to the top line to "take [Matthews's] spot" against Minnesota, his head rocked back a little.

"Oh, I don't know if I was taking his spot," Marleau said, vaguely alarmed. "All of the lines were jumbled."

Yes, they were. Because Marleau had to take Matthews's spot.

But semantics matter in hockey and no one, even someone with Marleau's pedigree, wants anyone to get confused about what's what in the pecking order.

(If he hadn't made the hierarchy clear enough, the 38-year-old Marleau said, "There's a lot of things I still need to get better at."

After two remarkable decades in the NHL, the only thing Marleau will still need to work on is figuring out how to fill out his NHLPA pension application when the time comes.)

All the messaging in this room is done internally, one man to the other under the cone. Nearly a quarter of the way into the season, with the team in fine, if occasionally erratic, form, those signals are strong and steady.

In years past, this week would have been the obvious time to have the first of two or three or 30 Leafsbased public freakouts. Matthews gone, defence lubberly, Frederik Andersen expected to play the role of goalie messiah.

It's not sustainable - not at the top level, anyway - but it is somehow working.

Of all the things that have changed about this club since the Great Fire of '15, the most important of them appears to be luck. Things that never used to go the Leafs' way suddenly do.

Whenever they are a bit off, their opponents are even more so. It's as though claiming the right to draft Matthews first over all - the franchise's most important win of the century - operated as an overarching karma repair job. That wheel is now stuck on "Enlightenment."

"It's going to be an interesting weekend for us," said Matt Martin, without the slightest hint of irony.

Not so long ago "interesting" would have been code for "profoundly depressing" or "almost certainly the beginning of the end." Not any more.

Who would blame the Leafs for believing they can sustain their advantage against the Bruins, a team more beaten up than they are?

And if they don't, let's guess what the message will be then: "Predictable dip; a game of ups and downs; had to happen some time; just wait until Matthews gets back."

At this point, there is no losing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. When was the last time they could say that?

It is amazing how good vibes beget good results. Maybe there really is something to that positivity stuff (though it also helps if you hit a draft jackpot three years in a row).

The only person who doesn't seem any more or less buoyant than usual is Babcock. He's still giving off that subtle hum, as though he's vibrating imperceptibly while standing completely still. Few people on Earth give off more of a sense of busyness.

Someone tried to draw him on the subject of improvements in the way injured players are treated these days, and how the healing process now seems hastened.

Babcock, in charismatic-avoidance mode, told a tall tale about how he remembered the days when the guy who drove the team bus was also the medic and that you avoided getting hurt because he was the one who was going to be looking after you. The implication was that things change, but not that much.

"There's sports science and Saskatchewan science," Babcock said.

"Sometimes I prefer Saskatchewan science."

He's probably right. Some things don't ever really change. But they have on his team.

Huh? How did I get here?
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