Preview: Wild vs. Maple Leafs
Welcome back, Auston Matthews.
The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ young star returned from a 14-game stint on injured reserve Wednesday night and promptly lit up the San Jose Sharks. Matthews’ two goals and an assist helped Toronto to a 5-3 win, its 10th in 13 games.
He’ll aim for a similar performance Saturday night when the Maple Leafs visit Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. for a matchup with the suddenly struggling Minnesota Wild.
“After the first, I felt terrible,” Matthews said of Wednesday night’s game. “Second period, I didn’t feel too good, and I think in the third period I finally got my legs under me and I was kind of skating out there a little bit more. That’s kind of expected with that first game back. It’s tough to get into game shape when you’re just in practice.”
Matthews injured his left shoulder October 27 in a loss to the Winnipeg Jets, but Toronto’s depth helped make up for his absence. The Leafs (18-8-0) are just one point behind Tampa Bay and Buffalo for the best record in the Atlantic Division and the NHL.
Toronto’s balance is evident when one looks at the league stats. It’s third in goals (93), fourth in fewest goals against (67), fifth on the power play (27.9 percent) and first in fewest penalty minutes (147). It is the fast, efficient, explosive offensive machine coach Mike Babcock envisioned when he took the job in 2015.
The Leafs’ ability to finish plays with goals made the difference Wednesday night, when San Jose outshot them 41-29.
“I don’t know if we skated as good as we normally skate,” Babcock said. “We have good players and we found a way to play good enough and win. It was a big win for us against a good team.”
John Taveres scored twice in the first period, giving him 17 for the season. Mitchell Marner racked up assists on all three first-period markers to up his season total to 30. Marner is on a pace to finish with more than 90 helpers.
While Toronto is rolling, Minnesota (14-9-2) is looking to find its way again. After winning 10 of 12 matches, the Wild have now lost five of eight, including a 4-2 decision Thursday night in Columbus. They have allowed 3.4 goals per game in that stretch, which isn’t the way this team wins games.
Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau attributed the latest loss to being outworked by the Blue Jackets for a lengthy stretch bridging the first and second periods.
“I don’t think it was an adjustment of system play or anything else,” he said. “They started winning battles, and they won the battles and continued to win battles probably through the first 15 minutes of the second period.
“Once we started to win some battles, we got some zone time and opportunities. But you got to do it for 60 minutes. You can’t do it for 15 or 20 minutes.”
Mikael Granlund and Zack Parise scored goals for the Wild in Columbus. Parise leads the team in goals with 12, putting him on a 40-goal pace for the second time in his career. He has lit the lamp seven times in the last 10 games.