Auston Matthews sent the hockey world a message with one cross-check. It could pay off in the playoffs
Could it turn out to be $116,402.50 well spent? An interesting question.
When you’re an NHL star in a league that has only passing interest in allowing its best to be their best — and is beset by consistently poor officiating, and an unqualified chief disciplinarian who protects goons but not stars — it becomes a massive challenge to just play through the crap night after night. Connor McDavid finally got to the point where he’d had enough, and this week we found Auston Matthews had reached the same point.
Look, Rasmus Dahlin is a really good player with lots of upside, but he’s no Ed Van Impe. When non-combatants on non-playoff teams such as Dahlin start taking free shots, and the team you play for chooses not to surround you with players assigned to come rushing to your defence, there will come a time when a player such as Matthews has to respond in a decisive way.
In this case, it was a cross-check to the neck of Dahlin, earning Matthews a two-game suspension and the aforementioned loss in income.
Without the league’s top forward, the Maple Leafs beat Dallas and Carolina anyway, a meaningful collective feather in the team’s cap. Matthews was suitably apologetic and remorseful when he finally spoke publicly on the issue, and will return Saturday against Nashville.
Teams might have learned from this incident that the league’s top goal scorer can snap, and will try to goad him into similar responses in the future. At the same time, individual opponents might have also learned for the first time that Matthews is capable of reacting in a most unfriendly way to being manhandled, and that could work to his advantage.
He’s going to again have to fight for his space in the playoffs this spring, more than ever. If opponents think he will just take whatever is dished out, knowing full well Gary Bettman’s toothless administration will always favour the grunt over the gifted, then there will never be any reason for those opponents to back off.
If they think, on the other hand, that he just might turn and dish out some punishment of his own, that could work in his favour. You might wish the NHL didn’t operate this way, but the sad fact is that it does.
More than a few Leafs fans, remember, weren’t too happy when Matthews’s response to being punched from behind three times by Montreal defenceman Ben Chiarot in last year’s playoffs was to laugh at Chiarot, as though the shots were ineffective and a bit ridiculous. It was as though he was saying, “Seriously, you’re gonna let this guy get away with this?”
Well, of course the officials did. Chiarot kept it up for the whole series — especially after the whistle, when there is effectively no NHL rule book. That was his value. It wasn’t like he was going to score a goal or anything. Would Chiarot have backed off if he thought Matthews might turn around and feed him a lumber sandwich? Maybe. Maybe not.
But unless Matthews loses his five-goal bulge in the running for the Rocket Richard Trophy partly because of missing two games this week, the suspension won’t have hurt him anywhere but the wallet and may have actually helped him. His team won anyway, and responding as he did to Dahlin’s cross-check and clumsy attempted spear certainly got the hockey world’s attention.
Matthews has already proven he will take a hit to make a play. He has the puck as much as anyone in this league, but has only drawn six minor penalties. The fact that he hasn’t lost his temper like this before is evidence of an impressive willingness to absorb punishment in search of offensive success. This is not a player with a short fuse.
But when Bettman’s lowest common denominator league goes from the inadequate rule enforcement of the regular season to the absolute farce of the playoffs, there are times when being willing to take a slash or a spear to make a play won’t work in a star player’s favour.
Doug Gilmour had to play like he might snap at any moment and knock somebody’s teeth out because he was always a small guy playing against bigger opponents. Mats Sundin gradually learned it was useful to dole out some punishment and not just absorb it, and it made him a better playoff performer. Where the line is drawn and at one point reacting to an opponent’s tactics starts to undercut your own game are questions for every player to figure out.
We do know that a huge question for a Leafs team that has lost five opening-round playoff series in five years will be whether its top forwards — Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares — are going to come up with the necessary offence this spring. Nylander did come through against the Habs. Tavares got hurt and couldn’t play. Marner didn’t score in the series, while Matthews scored in Game 2, but didn’t score in the final five games.
For Marner, he has to prove his skill and smarts can be reproduced in a playoff situation. He doesn’t have the option of using size or muscle to create space and opportunity.
For Matthews, it will be whether he pushes back when he is pushed and then rises above the fray to deliver something special offensively. We’ve seen Sidney Crosby do it many times. They’ll test you and test you until they come to the conclusion that there’s a cost, either physically or on the scoreboard, and that’s what Matthews needs to demonstrate.
Keeping it to a level where he doesn’t get suspended is obviously important. But Leafs fans won’t mind seeing a little more fire from their best player. They never have.