TORONTO — Auston Matthews will be out at least three weeks for the Toronto Maple Leafs because of a knee sprain.
The center was injured in a 3-2 overtime win against the New York Rangers on Wednesday. He had four shots on goal in 21:53 of ice time but had his 10-game personal point streak end (eight goals, five assists).
Coach Sheldon Keefe said before a 6-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Friday that he wasn’t sure specifically what caused the injury.
“I noticed him in a little discomfort a couple times through the game but I didn’t think much of it at the time,” Keefe said. “He was still sore the next day, so they brought him for an MRI and there was an injury there, so he’ll take some time.”
Matthews, who is third on the Maple Leafs with 53 points and second with 25 goals, missed games Jan. 11 (2-1 win against the Nashville Predators) and Jan. 12 (4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings) with an undisclosed injury. Keefe said the knee sprain is not related to the issue that kept him out for those games.
Matthews, who was among the 12 players chosen in the 2023 NHL All-Star Fan Vote presented by Guaranteed Rate to participate in the Honda NHL All-Star Weekend, will be replaced by Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov on the Atlantic Division roster.
“He’s such a big part of our team and one of the best players in the world, so it’s unfortunate,” Toronto captain John Tavares said. “Hopefully he gets back here as quick as possible, I know he’ll do everything that needs to be done to do that and be ready to play. For us as a team, we have to come together and not really try to fill the void but I think just play to our team identity and what’s made us successful. We’ve shown good depth throughout the season, so there’s opportunity for other guys to step up.”
In his seven NHL seasons, Toronto is 31-17-2 without Matthews.
“If there’s anything we’ve learned about our team this season, it’s that we’ve been resilient no matter who has been in or out,” Keefe said. “For the most part other than missing Auston for a couple games, it’s the defense that’s been beat up a lot. Not sure where we are at in the League in man-games lost, but it has to be significant in terms of where we are at in the League and it hasn’t bothered our team. We just keep playing.”
The Maple Leafs have two games remaining prior to the NHL All-Star break. They play the Washington Capitals on Sunday and the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, then don’t play until visiting the Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 10.
Toronto (30-12-8) is second in the Atlantic, 12 points behind the first-place Bruins.
“Obviously you’re a different team,” Keefe said, “but I don’t think you have to play differently other than just more opportunity for other people and expect them to step up, do their job and everything that gives us success when Auston is in has to continue and you have to find a way to get that extra goal.”
Tavares replaced Matthews on a line between left wing Michael Bunting and right wing Mitchell Marner. Center Pontus Holmberg was moved up to replace Tavares on a line with left wing Calle Jarnkrok and right wing William Nylander.
Tavares said he believes Holmberg, who has 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 31 games in his rookie season, will be capable of elevating to a top-six role in the lineup.
“Just a really smart hockey player, understands the game really well and he’s sneaky really strong on his skates as well,” Tavares said. “He does a really good job of protecting pucks along the wall, a reverse shoulder from time to time to stand his ground, hold his ice and earn space that way. Very subtle plays that can unlock breaking out of your own end, or attacking offensively. He’s just got really good instincts.”
Bunting took Matthews’ spot on a power-play unit with Marner, Nylander, Tavares and defenseman Morgan Rielly. Matthews leads Toronto with 10 power-play goals. The Maple Leafs are eighth in the NHL on the power play (24.4 percent).
“I think it’s the same still,” Marner said of the power play, which is 5-for-20 in the past seven games, including 1-for-3 Friday. “Just try to be impactful, try to make a difference in the game when we get our chances. Obviously you lose a guy who can score in a lot of ways and a lot of different angles and make plays, but the thing about our power play is all five guys can work throughout those five spots and not be afraid to set up anywhere.”
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