Update: Auston Matthews is indeed playing for the Maple Leafs against Montreal on Saturday. Read below to find out why this is a big deal, even beyond the obvious of merely having a star return.
(And not just because they’re trying to win a sixth game in a row and make life more miserable for the rival Canadiens.)
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock must be delighted by how his team is winning games.
Most obviously, they’ve been doing so without Auston Matthews, who’s currently dealing with an upper-body injury. The Leafs won their fifth consecutive game 1-0 in OT thanks to William Nylander‘s slump-breaking goal, and Toronto’s played the last four without Matthews.
The variety of wins – some in overtime, some with outstanding goaltending, many likely boosting other talents who step up – must really encourage Babs. And that confidence could come in handy very soon.
The Athletic’s James Mirtle breaks down how they’ve been winning and who’s stepped up in Matthews absence, so check that out for more in that regard (sub required).
That’s all good stuff, but here’s the thing: the Maple Leafs are lucky that Matthews seems like he’s nearing his return, because the rest of 2017 presents a beast of a schedule. Before we get to that, consider that Matthews appears to be a gametime decision for Saturday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens:
So, obviously, that’s not a guarantee that he’ll play. It implies that he’s at least getting closer, though.
Feast your eyes on the remainder of the Maple Leafs’ schedule during this calendar year, which might prompt a New Year’s resolution of “Let’s just try to forget what we just went through.” The away games are bolded, with back-to-backs underlined.
Sat, Nov 18 @ Montreal
Mon, Nov 20 vs Arizona
Wed, Nov 22 @ Florida
Fri, Nov 24 @ Carolina
Sat, Nov 25 vs Washington
Tue, Nov 28 @ Calgary
Thu, Nov 30 @ Edmonton
Sat, Dec 2 @ Vancouver
Wed, Dec 6 vs Calgary
Sat, Dec 9 @ Pittsburgh
Sun, Dec 10 vs Edmonton
Tue, Dec 12 @ Philadelphia
Thu, Dec 14 @ Minnesota
Fri, Dec 15 @ Detroit
Tue, Dec 19 vs Carolina
Wed, Dec 20 @ Columbus
Sat, Dec 23 @ NY Rangers
Thu, Dec 28 @ Arizona
Fri, Dec 29 @ Colorado
Sun, Dec 31 @ Vegas
The Maple Leafs play 15 of their next 20 games on the road. The final stretch is especially rough, with a five-game road trip and eight of nine away from home. There are also five back-to-back sets.
So, it’s great that the Maple Leafs have manufactured ways to win without their brilliant top forward. That said, as Mirtle points out, they’ve been outplayed pretty badly at times in those games, and you wonder how long that luck (and timely work, to be fair) can last.
From the look of things, the Maple Leafs might not have to worry too much about that, and Matthews’ return couldn’t come at a much better time.
Not that it will be easy even with him, especially since he might not be at full-strength right away.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.