Sounds like Auston Matthews will finally return for Leafs

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All things considered, the Toronto Maple Leafs have weathered the storm when it comes to Auston Matthews‘ injuries.

Granted, there are likely “What if?” games, with Tuesday’s disappointing loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning standing as an example. Would the Maple Leafs have coughed up a 3-0 lead to lose to the Bolts in regulation with two-way star Matthews in the lineup? It’s a moot point, but Buds fans likely wonder as much.

Either way, the Maple Leafs are comfortably resting as a dangerous third seed in the Atlantic Division, waiting to see if the Lightning slip to second place or if they’ll take on the Boston Bruins (who likely feel little sympathy for Toronto’s injury issues considering their own).

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Maple Leafs deserve credit for resisting the urge to rush Matthews back in the lineup, yet with the regular season winding down, they have to weigh risking re-injuries against the American star being too rusty. It sounds like Matthews will finally get back into the lineup for Thursday’s game against the red-hot Predators in Nashville.

At least, that’s what Matthews says, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

Matthews’ latest malady has sidelined him since Feb. 22. During his absence, the Maple Leafs went 5-3-2, scoring four more goals than they allowed.

There have been some bright sides to Matthews missing 20 games, including 10 most recently.

For one thing, other players have been able to run with opportunities that might have been muted with him in the lineup. Mitch Marner generated an impressive 14 points in the latest 10 games with Matthews on the shelf, while James van Riemsdyk has been sniping at a ridiculous pace (eight of his 10 points have been goals). Morgan Reilly’s also been on fire, collecting nine points during that 10-game span.

From Left Wing Lock’s listings, it looks like Matthews will see some familiar linemates in William Nylander and Zach Hyman, while Marner and JVR aim to flesh out the second and third lines respectively.

Ideally, such alignments would allow the Maple Leafs to deploy waves of offense much like some of their most dangerous peers, including the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Matthews missing all this time has that silver lining, and as The Athletic’s James Mirtle notes (sub required), the American center’s loss could be the Leafs’ long-term gain. Depending upon how bonuses pan out, Matthews likely missing some marks could save Toronto quite a bit in cap space in 2018-19 and 2019-20, which is ideal considering that Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will see their rookie deals expire in the near future.

“The injury probably cost him the $2-million, as he would have been top 10 in goals,” Mirtle’s anonymous source said. “Technically, he could still make it in points per game but highly unlikely.”

If Matthews can get up to speed and in a good rhythm by the time the playoffs begin, the situation would present a lot to like for the Maple Leafs.

That said, much of that optimism ignores the plain reality that the Maple Leafs face a significant hurdle to even escape the first round. The Bruins and Lightning both pose serious challenges, so it won’t be an easy draw early on for Toronto.

Then again, the Maple Leafs are a tougher out than they seem, too, being that they’ve been without their best player for 20 games. A Maple Leafs team with Matthews at or near full-strength could set the stage for one of the best series of the first round.

Barring setbacks, that drive begins in earnest on Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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