Playing Matthews in the next couple of games is a no brainer for the Maple Leafs

Photo credit:Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Steitzer
1 month ago
As someone who often goes on at length about the value of load management down the stretch and as someone who beats the drum for how completely unimportant the final games of the season are for the Maple Leafs, there is a pretty big exception when it comes to Auston Matthews and not only his question for 70 goals but his quest to see exactly how many goals he can end up with. And while the tweet below asks a reasonable question, the answer should be obvious. The Leafs should dress Auston Matthews in the final two games.
First, 70 goals mean a lot to Auston but also likely to the entire Leafs’ locker room. The milestone matters, and you could tell by Auston’s reaction to his 60th goal a few games back that these numbers matter. Matthews hitting 70 would be only the 15th time in NHL history that number has been achieved, and Matthews would be only the 9th player in history to do so. The 70th goal matters a lot, but so does each potential goal that follows. Goal 71 would put his season in the top 10 goal-scoring seasons in history, and each goal up to 74 allows him to climb one step higher in those standings. It may not be as big as #70, but each goal at this point is historic. Let the man have his history.
The other thing that needs to is that even if the Leafs go on a playoff run, 16 hungry teams are looking to win the Stanley Cup this year and a couple of days off for Matthews makes as much difference to help the Leafs become playoff favourites as much as the psychological bump of making some history in the final days of the regular season and going into the playoffs on a high, with an energized team and fan base ready to chase more big moments.
There is a happy compromise that Sheldon Keefe and company need to implement, sheltering Matthews a bit. There is no reason for the Leafs to put him in defensive zone situations. There isn’t a situation where Auston Matthews should be blocking a shot or even killing a penalty.
There likely isn’t a way to remove Matthews from facing Matthew Tkachuk, Sam Bennett, Tanner Jeannot, Matt Dumba, and others who might want to play him a little harder in the coming games, but that is where players like Max Domi have already established that touching Auston comes with consequences, and that should at least safeguard against some tomfoolery. The focus is often on wanting to keep Auston healthy heading into the playoffs, but the Panthers and Lightning want the same for their lineups. These final games might be less trying to damage potential playoff opponents and instead, a calm safe skate before the real storm comes in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, the history of the Leafs tells us to prepare for the worst, and even if limiting Matthews to choice offensive zone starts and as many powerplay minutes as possible that can be thrown his way, it feels like the Maple Leafs are playing with fire.
While I’m not sure “distraction” is the word I’d use for it, Matthews’ hunt for 70 is a secondary objective behind playoff readiness and giving the benefit of the doubt to the Leafs coach that he meant it in the “fun distraction” sense, especially since he too was caught up in it and played Matthews close to 24 minutes on Saturday. At practice Monday, Keefe had Matthews practicing between Bertuzzi and Marner.
The team wants this and it’s the best thing for them. And as far as giving Auston two games to get it done, I say he does it.

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