Matthews’ absence a much-needed test for young Leafs

It’s been just a few short days since Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews was ruled out for at least four weeks due to a shoulder injury suffered against the Winnipeg Jets on the weekend.

The Leafs managed to find a way to win against their Western Canadian rivals, erasing a 2-0 deficit in the third on the strength of two goals in 26 seconds from Jake Gardiner and Kasperi Kapanen.

However, Toronto’s first full game of the season sans Matthews was a much different outing. Monday’s matchup with the Calgary Flames went about as bad as possible for the Leafs, who managed just four first-period shots and 15 through 40 minutes.

The Leafs managed just one goal off the stick of Nazem Kadri, and while Zach Hyman and most of the Leafs thought they’d tied the game in the third, the shot attempt landed on the back of the net. That was as close as they would get as Michael Frolik would seal the game with an empty-netter in the closing seconds.

The schedule only gets harder for Toronto over the next month. After going up against the Dallas Stars on Thursday, the Leafs will play the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second time in two weeks on Saturday. In the month of November, they’ll also have two games against the Boston Bruins and Columbus Blue Jackets and embark on the dreaded California road trip.

Needless to say, the young squad will learn a lot about themselves over the next stretch of games.

While the loss of Matthews is crushing, it may be just the thing to get the rest of the team going offensively.

Through the first 11 games of his campaign, Matthews was on a tear, scoring just under a goal per game and adding six assists. Only two other players – John Tavares and Kapanen – had more than five markers to open the season, while the likes of Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly managed to pitch in with four goals apiece. The top six wasn’t the issue for the Leafs, in fact, the team was relying heavily on their big guns to pull them to victories.

Patrick Marleau, Connor Brown, Par Lindholm, Josh Leivo, and Tyler Ennis have only managed a goal apiece. Zach Hyman and Andreas Johnsson have failed to find the back of the net – the latter found even his way into the press box after a string of tough outings to start the year.

Head Coach Mike Babcock made some changes to the lineup on Monday, placing Tavares with Hyman and Kapanen, while Kadri centred Marner and Marleau – a trio that was excellent for the Leafs down the stretch last season.

Barring a breakout stretch from a player lower in the lineup, Babcock will likely stick with that top six going forward.

The secondary scoring has to come at some point, right? Johnsson, who was one of the brightest up-and-coming youngsters in the Leafs system, will likely find last season’s form again soon; or so he hopes. The 23-year-old Swede bet on himself this summer and took a one-year deal with the Leafs. If he wants to cash in during the offseason, the strong performances have to come.

Marleau will also need to prove himself. Playing alongside Matthews on the first line all season, the 39-year-old has only managed five points. If he can get back to the display he put on last year, the Leafs will have an easier time getting through the rough patch.

And the Leafs will need to start getting production from Brown and Hyman going forward. The pair combined for 29 goals last season. The overall play has been up to par for both, the results just haven’t come.

The competition in the Atlantic Division has been fierce to start the 2018-19 campaign. While last year’s top three spots remain unchanged early on, the surprising play of both the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres have left each team just two points back of Boston for third place.

There won’t be a harder stretch for Toronto this season. Already missing two-time 60-point man William Nylander due to an ongoing contract dispute, the team will now need something to give with Matthews watching from the sidelines.

If the team can come together and finish with a positive record in November, that would be a great feat. But more performances like the Calgary game will lead to doom and gloom around Leafs Nation.

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