TORONTO — Auston Matthews said he feels as though he is rounding into form for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“I think every day I’ve felt physically better and better, so that’s always a good sign,” the center said Thursday. “My hands and feet are coming back.”
Matthews said July 13, the first day of training camp, that he had tested positive for COVID-19. He said he was “pretty much asymptomatic and felt for the most part pretty normal for the two weeks.”
The center said the biggest effect the positive test had on him was forcing him to stay off the ice for 2-3 weeks while he was at his offseason home in Arizona, where he went after the NHL paused the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. But after training camp, which featured a five-game intrasquad scrimmage series to prepare for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, Matthews looks like the player who led Toronto in goals (47) and points (80) this season.
“I have seen progression. I’ve seen it with his conditioning and being able to sustain his play for longer,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s been really good. A lot of the things that I was hoping to see from him in this camp, I’ve seen. He’s the least of my worries at this point.”
The Maple Leafs (36-25-9, .579 points percentage) are the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and will play the No. 9 seed Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15, .579) in a best-of-5 qualifier series, which starts Aug. 2 at Scotiabank Arena. The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, scheduled for Aug. 10.
Toronto will play an exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS).
Early in the scrimmage series, Matthews said he was not getting into position to use his shot as often as he would like but felt he began to get himself into scoring areas more often during the final two scrimmages.
“I think I’ve been shooting the puck a little bit more the past couple of scrimmages and creating a little bit more, so I think that’s all a good sign,” Matthews said. “I just want to continue to progress here positively and find my game back as fast as I can.”
Though Matthews didn’t score as much early in the scrimmages, Keefe was impressed with the way he forechecked and forced turnovers.
“He hasn’t shot the puck a great deal,” Keefe said. “But he’s made a ton of plays and he’s won the puck back with his skill set and his body.”.
Keefe shuffled the teams for the final scrimmage, resulting in Matthews and his linemates, right wing William Nylander and left wing Zach Hyman, being matched against a line with left wing Ilya Mikheyev, center John Tavares and right wing Mitchell Marner.
“It helps a lot facing those guys,” Matthews said. “There’s three elite players on that line. They’re a big part of our team as well as our line. It’s always good when you go head-to-head and compete 1-on-1 against each other. It definitely brings out the best in each person and we’re going to need that in the next couple of weeks.”