Matthews feels 'it's just a matter of time' before he breaks out at even strength
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs and Los Angeles Kings practised at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, Calif., on Tuesday ahead of Wednesday night’s game at Staples Center.
Auston Matthews has gone 10 straight games without a five-on-five goal. It's his longest drought since his rookie season (2016-17).
"The puck just hasn't been going in," the 24-year-old centre said. "If the chances continue to come, they're going to drop so it's just matter of time and staying positive. We're winning games and that's all that really matters."
The Leafs have won 11 of their last 13 games to surge into second place in the Atlantic Division. Still, this has to be a weird feeling for Matthews, who scored more even-strength goals than any other player over the last five seasons.
Last season, Matthews scored seemingly at will. He was on the board in 60 per cent of Toronto's games (31 of 52). This season, Matthews has scored in only five of 17 games (29 per cent).
"The team is succeeding and he's a big part of it," coach Sheldon Keefe pointed out. "I mean, he's still playing 20-plus minutes a night so there's that and then the ultimate confidence that the goals will come ... He's handling it well. My conversations with him have been good."
Matthews admits it took time to get up to speed after missing the pre-season schedule and first three regular season games while he rehabbed his left wrist following summer surgery. So, perhaps that explains why the finish hasn't quite been there.
"It comes back the more you play," Matthews said of his touch and feel.
Matthews is tied for the NHL lead in posts hit (five).
"Just stay within your game and make sure you're taking care of the defensive side, because that tends to help generate more offence," Matthews said of his mindset. "So not getting too anxious on the offensive side of the puck and start cheating. Just continue to play hockey and do things the right way and get your chances."
Matthews continues to get shots. Last year, he averaged 3.1 shots per game in five-on-five play. This season, he's also at 3.1.
"I've definitely felt a lot better over the last five, 10 games," he said.
Five-on-five scoring hasn't just been an issue for Matthews. The Leafs, as a team, are in the middle of the pack (17th) in that department despite leading the NHL in expected goals, per NaturalStatTrick.com.
"I find we've generated really good looks, but it usually comes off a long sequence and we get maybe one look per shift rather than get multiple looks," Keefe observed. "We have the puck a lot. We're in the offensive zone a lot, but the results haven't been there despite some of the underlying numbers that are positive. We think having a greater urgency towards attacking the net more frequently is something we can do a little differently."
The current hot streak has been fuelled by strong goaltending and stingy defending. Toronto entered Tuesday's games ranked third overall in goals against per game (2.25) and penalty kill percentage (88.7).
"We've certainly defaulted to the defensive side of the puck a lot more of late, because that's necessary for us," Keefe said. "We had to plug some holes defensively and our guys have done that, but that's no excuse for us offensively. We have more of a defensive mindset and we've led in a lot of games and we've been protecting leads, but we need to be able to do both. We want to be a great team. We got to be able to do both so that's our continued focus: generate more chances and make good on the ones we do get, but don't sacrifice defensively."
The Leafs rank 26th in goals per game (2.55) this season.
Matthews has scored on just 3.8 per cent of his five-on-five shots this season, which is down from 17.6 per cent last season.
Perhaps a new look will change his luck. Matthews vowed to shave off his moustache if he raised more than $134,000 as part of the Movember campaign for men's health. He passed that goal over the weekend. His lip sweater, though, remains on for now.
"I'm going to wait to the end of the month," said Matthews with a smile. "I feel really humbled with all the support and being able to raise enough money to reach that goal. I'm more than happy to shave it off for a good cause.
Matthews has had the moustache since a family vacation to Mexico during the summer of 2019. Will he grow a new moustache soon?
"I think so, yeah," he confirmed.
If Matthews wants to get his even-strength offence going on Wednesday in Los Angeles, he'll need to outfox old nemesis Phillip Danault.
"He plays hard both ways," Matthews said. "He's very skilled offensively, too. I don't think he gets enough credit for his playmaking ability out there as well. He's very solid on both sides of the puck."
Danault, who signed with the Kings in the summer, was a big reason why Matthews finished May's playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens with just one goal in seven games.
"If you play good against a top player you feel good about yourself," Danault said, "especially when it's your job so yeah it gives me confidence. Just our playoff run in general gave me a lot of confidence and showed me what I can do."
Danault's familiarity with Matthews thanks to constant battles in the North Division helped him learn some of the Arizona native's tendencies.
"We played 17 times last year so you get to know the guy," he said.
Danault scored twice and added an assist earlier this month when the Kings beat the Leafs 5-1 in Toronto. Keefe had last change and Danault ended up matched against John Tavares and Mitch Marner most of the night.
The Kings have lost four straight (0-2-2) and Danault says they have to get back to how the played in the win over the Leafs.
"We were aggressive in Toronto. We were skating and had a lot of speed. We don't want to sit back too much. We got to be more aggressive. We do play a 1-3-1, but we just got to stay aggressive offensively."
If Matthews gets around Danault, he'll still need to deal with Jonathan Quick, who turned aside 33 of 34 shots in that game in Toronto. Quick is enjoying a resurgent season ranking top-10 in save percentage (.939) and goals-against average (1.88). Although, he doesn't think those statistics are a good way of judging goalies.
"The people that pay attention to those numbers, they usually are not watching the games or don't really have a great idea of what's going on in the games," Quick said. "Be wary of the guys who really like to talk about those numbers. They usually don't know what they're talking about."
So, what number does Quick care about?
"Wins," the 35-year-old said. "You know, f—k, wins and points. You want to get wins and points and if you get enough of them you get to play in the tournament at the end."
Quick has climbed the mountain twice winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. He hoisted the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2012.
"You win 6-5, you feel good after the game, right," Quick said. "It doesn't matter that's what the score was. You lose 1-0 and you're leaving the game thinking what you could've done differently. The more games you play, the more you realize that's what it's about."
Quick mentored Jack Campbell when the goalie spent parts of four seasons in Los Angeles.
"He's just the man," Campbell said. "He's as competitive as they get. He's a strong guy and he's definitely somebody I wouldn't want to mess with, that's for sure ... He's a warrior and I learned so much from him."
Campbell admits it was hard to manage his emotions when he faced Quick and some other old friends for the first time. He allowed four goals during that loss to the Kings on Nov. 8, which is his second-highest total of the season.
"It's natural to be pretty excited to play the old team," the 29-year-old said. "I kind of got that out last game and unfortunately lost the game, but will be ready to go tomorrow."
Campbell actually leads the NHL in save percentage (.944) but, like Quick, isn't interested in that sort of thing.
"Honestly, it's all about my process, putting in the work," he said. "You're only as good as your last game."
Campbell’s last game was a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.
"They're both ultra competitive," said Kyle Clifford, who played with both Quick and Campbell in Los Angeles. "Jack's just got a different way of showing it. When it's game on, there's no quit in both their games."
Clifford reported to the Marlies after being acquired by the Leafs in a trade with St. Louis last week. He played two games in the American Hockey League before being called up for Toronto's California road trip.
"You come on a trip so far from home, it's good to have reinforcements and then it's just a good opportunity to re-introduce him to the group and have him around," Keefe explained.
"A warm welcome from the guys," said Clifford. "I missed them a lot. I'm excited to be back and having that Leafs jersey on again."
Clifford wore No. 73 during his first tour of duty with the Leafs, but is going with No. 43 this time.
"It's my kids birthdays added together," he explained. "They'll be down in St. Louis while I'm in Toronto."
Petr Mrazek, who is working his way back from a groin injury, is also on this trip. He took part in part of practice on Tuesday.
"It's progress, for sure," Keefe said. "We'll continue to increase his workload throughout the trip."
For now, Joseph Woll remains the team's No. 2 goalie. He posted a 20-save shutout on Sunday against the New York Islanders and may be in line for another start on this road trip.
"When we were mapping things out a little bit, we thought we would like to be able to get Jack some time off perhaps even on this trip so we'll see how it goes," Keefe said. "Even before Joe played his game the other night, we had talked about the fact it would be nice to get a non-back-to-back game out of our back-up goaltender so we'll continue to look at that. Obviously, Joe's performance the other night didn't hurt that cause."
The Leafs play in San Jose on Friday before wrapping up the trip on Sunday in Anaheim.
Campbell leads the NHL in games played (16) this season.
Lines at Tuesday's practice:
Bunting - Matthews - Marner
Kerfoot - Tavares - Nylander
Ritchie - Kampf - Kase
Engvall - Spezza - Simmonds
Rielly - Brodie
Muzzin - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren