TORONTO (Mar. 14) — At long last, the God of Leafs Nation showed some bite.
Yeah, it cost him two games, but the pushback by Auston Matthews against Rasmus Dahlin of Buffalo on Sunday could be money in the bank for May and June. No player in the National Hockey League should use any part of his stick in a confrontation. Neither should Matthews have crosschecked Dahlin on the side of the neck. That, too, will be a lesson as the NHL’s leading goalscorer watches home games against Dallas (on Tuesday) and Carolina (Thursday). Getting belted around in the final minutes of the Heritage Classic was just a small taste of what Matthews can expect once the first playoff shift is underway. But, he went down fighting while his team was being embarrassed on national TV in Canada and the United States. The face of the franchise reciprocated. Finally.
And, it sent a shockwave through the local hockey scene.
Two columns materialized in the Toronto Sun. Steve Simmons’ headline: Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews sends message by fighting back. The lede to a column by Michael Traikos said: “The days of Auston Matthews pretending to be a gentleman are officially over.” Of that, I’m not certain. But, we were witness to a brief pause.
In that regard, this was a “good” suspension for the Leafs. It won’t cost the team profoundly in the playoff race; few people expect Toronto to overcome Florida for first place in the Atlantic Division. Neither will it deeply impact Matthews’ quest to score more goals than any Maple Leafs player in a single season; the record of 54 is held by Rick Vaive on one of the worst teams in franchise history: the sorry 1981–82 collection that finished 20–44–16 for 56 points. Matthews has 45 with, potentially, 21 games to play. Barring a cosmic slump, he will break the record on one of the best regular–season clubs in Leaf annals. And, become the first Toronto skater to score 60 goals.
Predictably, there was moaning from Leaf apologists in the media. Soon after the suspension was made public, the Toronto Star, which has plummeted in its objectivity toward the hockey club, posted this sub–headline to its main story: “Video showed Buffalo Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin cross–checked Matthews twice before the Leafs centre reached back and drove his stick towards Dahlin’s head.” Sportsnet, owned by the Leafs, was naturally quick to point out that “Matthews, a two–time Lady Byng finalist, had never been suspended or fined through six NHL seasons.” Both arguments are irrelevant. With any record, Matthews would have gotten four or five games for the dangerous crosscheck — a stick foul the league has cracked down on this season.
HANDS OFF THE IMMORTAL
The sheer audacity of me suggesting that Matthews may have helped prevent last Thursday night’s overtime winning goal by Jacob Chychrun of Arizona brought out the Twitter loonies like never before in my experience. As of Monday night, more than 162,000 anonymous Leaf worshipers (as below) had viewed the Tweet I posted Friday morning. Some replied credibly. The overwhelming majority (the basement dwellers) did their usual thing.
In my view, Matthews comported himself more admirably by cranking Dahlin across the neck on Sunday than by giving up on the play in which Chychrun should have been penalized for holding his stick in the offensive zone.
The Coyotes won the match, 5–4, on the extra time goal, as Matthews turned and yelled at the officials, letting up on his backcheck. He then threw a tantrum afterward, berating referees Brandon Blandina and Kendrick Nicholson. Kevin McGran of the Star; Luke Fox of Sportsnet and other Leaf advocates in the local media were aghast over the non–call. McGran went so far as to poll several Toronto players as to why poor Auston draws fewer penalties than two–time Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid — a cause taken up, today, by colleague Chris Johnson. It’s an ever–growing issue with the “independent” writers that cover the Leafs; especially those, such as Johnson, who have side gigs with team–owned TSN, magnifying that outrageous conflict–of–interest.
As for reaction to the crosscheck on Sunday, it varied. As mentioned, the tone of reporting in Toronto was to minimize or rationalize Matthews’ stick foul with regard to his clean NHL slate. My friend Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News — fast becoming the dean of hockey writers — elected to have some fun with Leafs Nation.
“The Sabres beat Vegas in the Jack Eichel return circus Thursday, and Sunday in Tim Horton’s Field, they absolutely punked Canada’s team for the second time in 12 days,” Mike penned. “As time goes on, you might remember the two goals apiece from Peyton Krebs and Vinnie Hinostroza. Folks in Toronto will certainly remember Hinostroza’s game winner from the goal line past embattled Petr Mrazek, which might force Leafs GM Kyle Dubas into a desperation trade for a goalie if he has any hope of surviving in the playoffs. But the real moments we’ll remember? Rasmus Dahlin going at it in front of the net with Auston Matthews and absorbing a vicious cross–check that will earn the NHL’s leading goal scorer an audience with NHL Player Safety. [Also], seeing those television shots of Dubas and Toronto president Brendan Shanahan glumly standing in their suite as the time ticked away…”
The Leaf–centric websites were almost too predictable. In Maple Leafs Hotstove, founder Alec Brownscombe entitled his column: Laughably, NHL DoPS suspends Auston Matthews for two games. Wrote aggravated Alec (with rambling invective): “For a perennial Lady Byng candidate with no priors, this is a joke, and as much to do with the spotlight on the team and the event the incident took place in as the actual infraction, which isn’t too far removed from everyday scrum behaviour that often goes unnoticed across the league. If we’re going to sit here and point out the inconsistencies in the DoPS wheel of justice and the role the media plays in elevating some incidents over others, we’d be here all day. This has more to do with the fact that the Sportsnet panel instantly dedicated a segment to it and the clip of the incident went viral across social media within seconds, sending the DoPS into a ‘reactionary need to respond to public outrage’ mindset, than it does any player safety concerns — thus the speed of the announcement of a scheduled hearing last night, and the expedited verdict this afternoon.”
The nerve of those Sportsnet panelists.
KYLE IN A CORNER: Given two opportunities in the past ten days, Kyle Dubas has refused to show the slightest concern about his frightful goaltending situation. With Jack Campbell sidelined after a prolonged slump — and Petr Mrazek appearing to be a near–criminal waste of money and cap space — Dubas cornered himself by twice assuring that all is well. How, then, can the Leafs GM turn around and make a last–ditch move at the trade deadline to shore up the position? And, if the Leafs cannot get a big save in the first round of the playoffs, how does Kyle keep his job for another season? It’s a messy circumstance right now — for the team and its manager.
Words in this hockey market are difficult to contradict. Would Dubas perhaps have traded William Nylander by now had he not publicly avowed that no such move would be made on his watch? Might even the casual search for goaltending help before the Mar. 21 trade embargo not be easier without baseless claims that all we’ve seen from Leaf stoppers since the All–Star break is a mirage? Either Dubas has foot–in–the–mouth disease or he is, as written here last week and quoted by a fellow NHL exec, “the most stubborn individual in a sport full of stubborn people.” Something has to give in this chaotic situation. And, it may not be pleasant for the hockey club.
A GOLDEN PIECE: One thing the Leafs can be sure of no matter what happens prior to the trade deadline; how far the club advances in the playoffs, or which jobs are potentially lost in the off season… their captain ranks among any of the dignified and classy names in team history. Taking a back seat to none of Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong, Darryl Sittler or Mats Sundin. Understated in this otherwise volatile hockey town is the essence of John Tavares. The perfect choice to wear the ‘C’. An absolute hall–of–fame gentleman.