Matthews-less Maple Leafs somehow continue to roll

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/5161/" data-ylk="slk:Frederik Andersen">Frederik Andersen</a> has been very solid for the Toronto Maple Leafs of late (Getty Images)
Frederik Andersen has been very solid for the Toronto Maple Leafs of late (Getty Images)

Hockey is not a one-man game at the NHL level. If it was, there’s no way the Edmonton Oilers would sit outside a playoff spot. Any superstar, even Connor McDavid, needs help.

The other side of that coin is that a team can win without any one player — even their best. That’s precisely what the Toronto Maple Leafs had been doing sans Auston Matthews coming into Thursday night’s 1-0 overtime win against the New Jersey Devils.

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In three games prior, the Maple Leafs dropped the Boston Bruins twice and the Minnesota Wild once by a combined score of 11-5, seemingly a strong demonstration that playing without Matthews is an obstacle, but far from a crippling one. William Nylander’s buzzer-beating brilliance on Thursday helped reinforce that notion.

Looking a little deeper it’s clear the Maple Leafs have been struggling without their stud centre despite their success in the standings. Despite managing another win, the absence of Matthews is getting awfully noticeable.

In the last four games Toronto has been outshot 152-102. In the 16 games Matthews played this season it was a more even 510 shots for to 518 against. That’s far too much of a difference to peg on one player, but it’s also exactly the area where the star centre makes a difference. The 20-year-old has been a strong possession player so far in his career, and when he’s out the rest of the centres on the Leafs draw harder competition, making it more likely they’ll fail to control the pace of play.

The other area where Matthews’ absence has been felt is five-on-five scoring. Although 12 goals in four games is an adequate number, it’s a deceptive one. Of those tallies only six of them were of the five-on-five variety. Two came on the power play, two were three-on-three winners, one came on an empty net, another came with Toronto’s net empty. Those goals certainly still count, but sustained success is best built on filling the net at even strength.

Meanwhile, Matthews was the NHL’s top even-strength goal scorer last season. Only nine of his 50 career goals have come on the power play. Now, there’s an argument to be made that coach Mike Babcock should be giving him more five-on-four minutes on the first unit, but that’s neither here nor there. The relevant fact is that when Matthews is in the lineup the Maple Leafs can create more offence without relying on the assistance of the referees.

It’s always going to be hard to complain about any 4-0 stretch, but it’s clear Toronto may have lucked into some of its Matthews-less success. It’s hard to keep shooting 11.8 percent without your best shooter, and it’s borderline impossible to keep up a save percentage of .967 with a Frederik Andersen-Curtis McElhinney tandem — or any goalies really.

This team deserves credit for capitalizing on their chances, and making some creative plays, in front of a red-hot Andersen. When the end of the season comes, the eight points they’ve managed over the last four may well be crucial to playoff seeding.

But make no mistake, the Maple Leafs need Auston Matthews back soon and badly.

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