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Auston Matthews misses second straight playoff game with Leafs facing elimination

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press







Published Thursday, May 2, 2024 12:28PM EDT






Last Updated Thursday, May 2, 2024 10:43PM EDT

TORONTO – Auston Matthews was back on the Scotiabank Arena ice Thursday morning.

That wasn’t the case when his Maple Leafs once again faced elimination roughly 10 hours later.

Head coach Sheldon Keefe announced following Toronto’s 11 a.m. skate – in which Matthews didn’t partake – the star sniper would be unavailable for Game 6 with Toronto down 3-2 in its first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins.

The 26-year-old was pulled from Game 4 with an illness and didn’t suit up in Tuesday’s 2-1 overtime road victory at TD Garden that kept the Leafs’ hopes alive.

Keefe was asked before Game 5 if there was something else – namely an injury – bothering Matthews, but he declined to answer directly.

The workhorse centre, who led the NHL with the league’s first 69-goal regular season in almost three decades, skated Wednesday at the team’s practice facility and again Thursday for about 30 minutes before Toronto’s playing group took the ice.

There appeared to be progress, but the team’s best player once again watched with the Leafs, who were minus star winger William Nylander for the first three contests of the best-of-seven matchup, again on the brink.

“It’s the nature of the game, the sport,” Leafs captain John Tavares said of dealing with absences. “We gotta play together as a group, everyone stepping up and doing more.

“Not one guy trying to fill his shoes.”

Game 7, if necessary, would be Saturday in Boston. The series winner will take on the rested Florida Panthers in the second round after they dispatched the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1 in the other Atlantic Division matchup.

The three-time Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goal-scorer, Matthews had a monster three-point Game 2 to help Toronto even the series 1-1, but didn’t look like himself two nights later in a 4-2 loss as he battled the illness.

Matthews then missed practice Friday for what the team initially called “maintenance.” He was on the ice Saturday morning ahead of Game 4 and tried to give it a go before being removed from the action by doctors in the second intermission of a disappointing 3-1 setback that left Toronto no margin for error down 3-1 in the series.

The Leafs responded with that 2-1 extra-time victory Tuesday to improve to 2-0 in 2023-24 minus Matthews following a 7-0 regular-season triumph over the Pittsburgh Penguins in mid-December.

“It just shows the strength of the group and the importance of the group,” Keefe said. “Not looking to others to do the job, but just doing your part and then trusting that the group will find a way to prevail in the end.”

Leafs rookie winger Nick Robertson said there’s a “desperation aspect” without Matthews in the lineup.

“Realizing that we don’t have a nearly-70-goal-scorer,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to produce and play well.”

Toronto is 1-16 all-time when trailing a series 3-1, but Boston blew the same lead last season in the first round against Florida.

Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said the Leafs showed what they’re capable of without Matthews in Game 5.

“Tremendous player – best goal-scorer in the league since he came in,” Montgomery said of the top pick at the 2016 draft. “Great player, but they played great without him.”

Matthews became the first NHLer since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96 to reach 69 goals, falling one short of becoming the ninth in history to hit 70.

“Every guy’s stepped up and played a different role, maximized their opportunity,” said rookie forward Matthew Knies, who scored the OT winner in Game 5. “We have a lot of guys in this room that can step up when their name is called.”

Tavares, who had to watch most of the 2021 post-season after suffering head and neck injuries early in Game 1, said it’s difficult not being in the battle with teammates.

“This is what you work for all year, starting in the off-season through training camp and earning a spot in the playoffs to compete for the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It’s what drives you, and to have that chance to be out there to compete and help your team, especially when you go through the journey all year long.

“It’s not easy.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2024.

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