TORONTO — Auston Matthews could return for the Toronto Maple Leafs when they host the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday (7 pm ET; TNT, SN, TVAS).
The center participated fully in Tuesday’s practice after missing five games with a sprained knee in a 3-2 overtime win over the New York Rangers on Jan. 25. Matthews said he initially sprained his knee during warm-up that night and that the injury gradually got worse as the game progressed.
“I thought he looked good,” said Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe. “In terms of perspective, today’s practice was important in terms of getting the proper reps with a (regular) shirt and all. There wasn’t a lot of practice time with the team, but he skated quite a bit. We’ll see how he goes in the morning and we will look for news from the medical team on his final status, but his intention was to come into practice today to feel good and be ready to play tomorrow, but that determination won’t be done until tomorrow.”
Matthews centered a line with the left wing Michael Bunting and right wing William Nylander in practice.
“I felt good,” said Matthews. “I think everything is moving in the right direction so it was good to get back in line and do a full workout and make up time and everything. So we’ll see how everything responds tomorrow morning and just see how I’m feeling, but for me really just trying to get into the mindset in anticipation of the game and go from there and see how I feel tomorrow.”
It was Matthews’ first full workout with the team since suffering the injury. He attended practice on Thursday but wore a non-contact shirt.
“It’s progressing really well so I felt confident, I felt good,” said Matthews. “See how it all feels tomorrow, but it all looked pretty good today and it’s feeling better and better every day.”
Matthews, who missed two games with a separate injury on Jan. 11 (a 2-1 win against the Nashville Predators) and Jan. 12 (a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings), is second on the Maple Leafs with 25 goals and third with 53 points in 47 games.
“It’s not fun to watch but you have to work really hard to come back and it can be a little tiring sometimes but I think the two weeks I’ve had have been very positive so I’m really happy with the way we’re moving here and I’m taking it day after day,” said Matthews.
Keefe said Matthews’ return will benefit the team in both obvious and subtle ways.
“It can’t be overstated,” Keefe said. “It’s significant and it changes a lot about our team in terms of where everybody fits in. Not just what he brings with his contributions, but also how that fits everybody else and how that makes you that much deeper and that much harder to defend, especially at home on the ice with the last change. It creates challenges for the opposition. He’s a world-class player.”
The Maple Leafs (32-14-8) are second in the Atlantic Division, 11 points behind the first-place Boston Bruins. They are 2-3-0 in the five games Matthews has missed with the knee injury.