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NEW YORK—Auston Matthews may have been fibbing just a wee bit when he said he was going to “keep it simple” in his first game back after a two-week concussion layoff.
Matthews was being Matthews in a 3-2 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, scoring a goal and setting up another by William Nylander to help send the Leafs into a four-day Christmas break with a solid road victory.
“I just want to play hockey,” Matthews said before his first game action since Dec. 9. “As far as conditioning, it’s still not there, but by the second and third period I want to just get better.
“I haven’t played in two weeks. I won’t be out there trying to dipsy-doodle guys . . . play it safe.”
By the time Matthews took to the ice for his first shift, dipsy-doodle had its own hashtag on Twitter.
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He was dangerous for a few shifts late in the first period, but that was just the start. In the second, standing just off the top of the crease, he used his quick hands to control a short rebound before Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist could grab it. Matthews then pulled the puck quickly to his backhand, manoeuvred around the sprawled Lundqvist and backhanded it into the empty net.
It was his 14th goal of the season and timely, giving the Leafs a 3-1 lead in what was a tight-checking battle all night.
“I felt fine as the game went along,” Matthews said post-game. “The first couple of shifts, you’re getting your legs back under you. Then you get the feel back with the puck. Then your confidence takes off from there.”
With that, Matthews was officially back, doing the kinds of things that made him the NHL’s rookie of the year last season.
“(Matthews) was left alone there, so I felt like he was going to have way too much time,” Lundqvist said. “I kind of tried to poke it away. Unfortunately, after I poked it away, he had enough time to walk around me.
“Obviously, he’s the wrong guy to face one-on-one in front of the net . . . It felt like he was all over us.”
Matthews’ value to the Leafs was made clear when he was out with a head injury. The club had lost four of their last five heading into MSG and needed a win to feel good heading into the break. They return to action Thursday against the Coyotes in Arizona, where Matthews was raised.
The Leafs can also feel good about their defensive effort after playing the kind of road game coach Mike Babcock had been seeking after dropping four straight away contests.
Defenceman Ron Hainsey had the other goal for the Leafs, while Nazem Kadri and his line with Patrick Marleau and Leo Komarov did a good job of neutralizing the Rangers’ top threats. That included Mats Zuccarello, who entered the game with 10 goals and 20 points in 14 career games against Toronto.
The Rangers beat Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen twice in 44 seconds in the third period, but one was waved off after a successful challenge. Kudos to the coaching staff and their spotters for detecting an offside on Michael Grabner’s marker, maintaining the 3-2 margin. Jimmy Vesey, in the second period, and J.T. Miller found the net for the Rangers.
For Matthews, the game reaffirmed his elite skills.
“He looked like his old self,” said Morgan Rielly, who picked up a pair of assists to reach 20 on the season, on pace to break his career high of 29. “He’s been off the ice for a while, but there’s never any doubt with him. He’s just a great player.”
Rielly had a season-high 26:57 in ice time, as Babcock leaned hard on him and Jake Gardiner (26:04). The third defensive pairing of Connor Carrick and Andreas Borgman finished with less than 10 minutes each.
Matthews’ chemistry with linemates Nylander and Zach Hyman was as good as before. The trio accounted for five of the nine points the Leafs put up.
“I think we got to working hard down low, we were able to cycle the puck,” Matthews said. “We caught them on an icing call on (Nylander’s goal), so they were a bit tired. We got shots at the net, but you saw Lundqvist. He was very good tonight.”
Babcock said the team’s medical staff set the timetable for Matthews’ return, but the coaches certainly discussed giving him the Christmas break before bringing him back.
“I don’t have anything to do with this,” Babcock said Saturday morning. “We have a medical group that decides all these things. It has nothing to do with me … they’ve gone way beyond probably what you could have done to give him all the time to be healthy and he’s ready to go, so he’s going.”
While Matthews looked solid, even with limited practice time, he was skating hard on his own for the previous four days.