Auston Matthews still waiting for go-ahead to play
Maple Leafs centre practises Wednesday, but remains game-day decision for Thursday's game vs. New Jersey
Toronto forward Auston Matthews took part in his first team practice on Wednesday since suffering an upper-body injury eight days ago, an indication he may be ready to play when the Maple Leafs host the New Jersey Devils.
Being inserted into Toronto's lineup on Thursday will be a game-day decision, according to coach Mike Babcock.
"Good to have him back on the ice today," Babcock said. "I don't know if he's playing tomorrow to be honest, we'll see tomorrow morning at the skate. Medical guys will tell me what's going on and we'll make our lines accordingly.
"Ideally we get all hands on deck and get playing."
Matthews says that he's not quite 100 per cent, but that he's itching to get back out there after watching the past three games.
"It's always frustrating to miss games, it sucks watching," said the 2017 Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year. "It feels boring when you can't skate."
Babcock saw some rust on the 20-year-old centre at Mastercard Centre, the Leafs' practice facility, but doesn't have any reservations about putting Matthews in if he's cleared to go.
"I saw today he was fine, but wasn't like he normally is," Babcock said. "Power, explosiveness, fitness... Anyone knows you take too many days off in hockey and takes you a while to get it back. (But) he's a good player and determined and I don't think there'll be any issues."
Matthews originally skipped morning skate but suited up against the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 6, saying he felt restricted with his mobility, and was listed day-to-day. If the injury occured in June rather than November, he says he likely wouldn't have missed any action at all.
"Yeah, if it's a playoff series you have to find a way to play, but it's early on in the season and it's something you don't want to make worse," Matthews said. "For (the injury) to not fully recover and then tweak it again, you're back to square one. We've been pretty cautious. Been feeling better day by day, that's all you can really ask for."
Toronto has won four straight games heading into its meeting at the Air Canada Centre with New Jersey, three without the young centre.
Babcock says his team stepped up their game with Matthews out.
"I like a lot of things happening when (he) hasn't been playing, had to dig in a little bit," said Babock. "We gave up shots when he was away but the scoring chances against were way down, especially high-quality were down. It gives your goalies a better chance to be good."
The Leafs have enjoyed a four-day layoff since taking a home-and-home series against the Boston Bruins over the weekend and are feeling confident as they prepare for the Devils, who beat Toronto 6-3 in their last meeting in October.
"We've played well here, won four in a row, chance to play Jersey, who slapped us around last time," said Babcock. "Sometimes you get a few days off and you relax. Nothing wrong with relaxing physically, but we want to be engaged mentally."
Matthews was skating on his regular line at practice between wingers Zach Hyman and William Nylander, which meant Babcock transitioned Patrick Marleau back to the wing.
The Leafs also recalled forward Nikita Soshnikov from the American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies. It was reported that Soshnikov had an out-clause in his contract stating that if he wasn't on the Leafs roster by Nov. 14 he could return to the KHL.
Babcock says Soshnikov was deserving of the call-up, however the Russian will be getting the Josh Leivo treatment and could be watching as a healthy scratch until a chance to play opens up.
"Obviously he had the concussion, spent the whole summer trying to work his way back and it took way more time than he probably expected," said Babcock. "We told him, 'you're gonna go back (down) and get your game going and get feeling good.'
The 24-year-old winger had five goals and 12 points in 14 games with the Marlies.
"He's been really good down there and when he gets his opportunity you got to make good on your opportunity. We think (he) is a real good player, it's good to have him back."
Matthews led Toronto in scoring with 10 goals and 19 points in 16 games.