May 26th, 2024

Matthews misses practice with illness, status unclear with Leafs facing elimination

By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on April 29, 2024.

Boston Bruins' Charlie McAvoy takes down Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews during NHL playoff action in Toronto on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. Matthews will be alongside his teammates in Boston.Whether the Maple Leafs sniper is on the ice with Toronto facing elimination is a massive question mark.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO – Auston Matthews will be alongside his teammates in Boston.

Whether the Maple Leafs sniper is on the ice with Toronto facing elimination is another massive question mark in a series that’s already featured plenty of lineup secrecy and intrigue.

Matthews didn’t practise as the Leafs prepared for Tuesday’s must-win Game 5 down 3-1 in their first-round playoff matchup against the Bruins.

“We’re hopeful that he’s available and feeling good and back to himself,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said following Monday’s 45-minute session. “But we’ve played well with guys out in the past.”

The Leafs certainly looked like a group preparing to put their season on the line minus the NHL’s leading goal-scorer in 2023-24.

Matthews had a monster Game 2 in Boston to even the series, but didn’t look like himself two nights later in Game 3. The 26-year-old then missed Friday’s practice for what Toronto initially described as “maintenance” before getting pulled from Saturday’s defeat in the second intermission by doctors as his team was pushed to the brink.

“Not ideal to be without Auston Matthews,” Toronto captain John Tavares said of the 69-goal man. “One of the best players in the world, but there’s tremendous depth, talent and character on this team. It’s a great opportunity for all of us to step up (and) raise our game, which is already needed and necessary.”

The best-of-seven series began with roster questions on both sides.

Leafs star William Nylander’s status was unclear because of an undisclosed injury until he joined the fray in Game 4.

“I was there,” Nylander said of Matthews. “It’s not fun having issues right now. Hopefully, he’s healthy. Whenever he’s ready, he’s ready.”

The Bruins, meanwhile, have kept everyone guessing on their goaltending choice, although Jeremy Swayman seems likely to get a third straight start Tuesday riding a personal seven-game win streak against Toronto dating back to 2022-23.

The Leafs, who moved Max Domi to the middle between Mitch Marner and Tyler Bertuzzi on Monday minus their No. 1 centre, have actually fared well without Matthews since he came into the league as the top pick at the 2016 draft, going a combined 35-19-2 in the regular season.

But it’s a steep hill in the playoffs minus one of the game’s best for a team that’s scored just seven times in 12 periods and is a miserable 1-for-14 on the power play.

The penalty kill has also been a disaster, with Boston connecting on six of its 13 opportunities.

“Special teams and goaltending are two areas that we have to be better in,” said Keefe, whose team would host a potential Game 6 on Thursday. “They’ve had the edge in those areas in the series and that’s tough to overcome.”

Toronto pulled starting netminder Ilya Samsonov and his .883 playoff save percentage Saturday after he allowed three goals on 17 shots through two periods. Joseph Woll had a clean final 20 minutes.

Keefe hesitated ever so slightly when asked about Toronto’s Game 5 starter before declining to answer. But Woll has shown he can get the job done following his performance in last spring’s second-round series against the Florida Panthers with Samsonov injured.

“Didn’t seem to be too big a moment for him,” Keefe said of Woll, who won Game 4 in Florida before the Panthers eliminated Toronto in Game 5. “Just like the other night, I thought he went in and was just calm and did a good job for us. Sammy’s done well in the series. He’s bounced back at times.

“But there’s areas we need to get better in, for sure, and getting more saves at critical times is a big part of that. They’re obviously getting lots at the other end.”

Tavares, meanwhile, said the players aren’t focused on who’s in or out. Tuesday is all about adding at least one more game to their schedule.

“That’s where our mind’s at,” he said. “Come out and bring our best.”

ROAD WARRIORS

Toronto is 11-9 under Keefe on the road in the playoffs, including a hard-fought 3-2 victory in Game 2.

The Leafs lost in seven games to the Bruins in 2013, 2018 and 2019, but took Game 5 away from home in each series and came back to force the winner-take-all finale in the first two after trailing 3-1.

MISSING MARCHY

Bruins captain Brad Marchand – a thorn in Toronto’s side this series and most of his career – was given a maintenance day along with fellow forward Danton Heinen at practice in Boston.

UP TO SPEED

Keefe said Sunday he thought Nylander looked like a player adjusting to the playoff pace Saturday.

“Some of the things that he was looking to do aren’t available,” Keefe said. “This team defends very well and he needs to adapt to the series, but he will.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2024.

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