Maple Leafs’ Matthews could return vs. Rangers

NEW YORK — When the Toronto Maple Leafs take the ice at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, their best player may be ready to return to the lineup.

Auston Matthews, out since suffering a concussion on Dec. 9 when he collided with Morgan Rieilly during a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, returned to practice Friday in preparation to face the New York Rangers.

The Maple Leafs had been calling Matthews’ injury an “upper-body” ailment but the team’s leading scorer admitted to the Toronto media Friday he was feeling concussion symptoms.

The revelation did not please Leafs coach Mike Babcock.

“You guys already talked to Auston,” a perturbed Babcock said before a question could be asked, according to the Toronto Sun. “We’re done with that. What else?”

If Matthews feels well, he’ll likely be in the lineup against the Rangers.

“No decision is going to be made until (Saturday) but I am definitely feeling a lot better, feeling good out there on the ice, just trying to get my legs back,” Matthews told the Toronto Sun. “Nice to get back out there with the whole team and get skating again. (It was) a high pace of practice, it’s fun being out there with more people than just myself.”

The Leafs are 2-4-0 since Matthews left the lineup, with all four losses coming on the road. Toronto has scored 14 goals in those six games, a number that is inflated by the team’s eight-goal outburst against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

“A player of that caliber changes the entire outlook of the game, the entire structure of what the opponent does because of the impact he has on a game,” Rielly told the Toronto Sun. “To get him back, we are very happy he is feeling better and he is ready to go.

“He’s a huge part of this team and one of the best players in the league. When you lose a guy like that who can score the way he does, it makes a big impact.”

The Rangers received bad news on the injury front Friday, as depth forward Jesper Fast will miss two to three weeks with a quad injury. The bottom-six winger was headed toward career-best totals with seven goals and 16 points in 30 games and plays an instrumental role on the penalty kill.

Throw in the fact the Rangers are coming off a 4-3 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils on Thursday that featured coach Alain Vigneault benching defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in the third period and Henrik Lundqvist questioning the team’s desire after his stellar performance, and the Leafs could not be coming to New York at a better time.

“We’re all pretty upset with the result after (Thursday) night,” Shattenkirk told the New York Post after practice Friday. “Happy that Hank got us a point, but I think we all feel that we have something to redeem ourselves for.”

Both teams begin the holiday break after the game and the Rangers are focused on heading into the hiatus on a positive note after the letdown against the Devils.

“The Leafs are obviously highly skilled, don’t give you a lot of room, always on top of their checks,” defenseman Marc Staal told the New York Post. “So what you do with the puck is really important. Just have to compete, win battles on the wall, all those things that allow you to have the puck, play in their end, and get scoring chances yourself. We have to respond.”