AUS­TON & WOODY

Why Matthews’ break is a good thing; Har­rel­son on Cheers re­boot

24 Hours Toronto - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL TRAIKOS

In hockey, the term used is “main­te­nance day.”

It sounds a lot like some­one is tak­ing his body to the auto shop for a tire ro­ta­tion and a tune-up, but it mostly means a player was too sore to prac­tise. By now, no one ques­tions it. Hockey is a phys­i­cal sport. If you need to skip work to soak in an ice bath or get a mas­sage, go do it.

The ques­tion is why doesn’t it hap­pen on game days?

Maybe it should. Maybe it is and we just don’t know.

Two days af­ter Aus­ton Matthews was a game-time de­ci­sion in a 4-3 shootout win against the Ve­gas Golden Knights, and one day af­ter he missed prac­tice with “sore­ness,” the best player on the Toronto Maple Leafs sat out Wed­nes­day night’s game against the Min­nesota Wild. The of­fi­cial word from head coach Mike Bab­cock is that Matthews is day-to-day with an up­per-body in­jury.

The un­of­fi­cial word was that he needed a break. And few could blame him.

This is a bru­tal part of the sched­ule for the Leafs. Af­ter play­ing four games in six nights on the road last week — three in Cal­i­for­nia and one in St. Louis — they re­turned home for an­other four games in six nights this week.

In to­tal, they play eight games in 13 days, two of which are on back-to­back nights.

If this was the mid­dle of March, per­haps what­ever is ail­ing Matthews wouldn’t have kept him out of the lineup. But if you are go­ing to miss a game to rest a bump or a bruise, bet­ter to do it in the sec­ond week of Novem­ber when the points in the stand­ings don’t seem as dire.

“I think you’re never go­ing to feel 100%,” Matthews said af­ter Mon­day’s win against Ve­gas, in which he had an as­sist and logged a game-high 21 min­utes and 11 sec­onds among for­wards.

“But I felt good enough to play and good enough to con­trib­ute.”

It was an­other way of say­ing that he had gut­ted out and played through what­ever was both­er­ing him. He might have done the same on Wed­nes­day, ex­cept he ei­ther couldn’t or was ad­vised not to for fear of it be­com­ing worse.

What­ever the rea­son, he took the night off and it wasn’t a big deal — or at least it should be. The Leafs won’t play goalie Fred­erik An­der­sen in ev­ery game this week, be­cause they don’t want him to burn out. But if An­der­sen needs rest, why doesn’t Matthews, who is av­er­ag­ing a minute more in ice time than any other Toronto for­ward and plays in all the crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions?

The an­swer has more to do with hockey’s war­rior men­tal­ity than any stats-based rea­son­ing.

Yes, you need Matthews on the ice to win games. He is a top-five scorer in the league with 10 goals and 19 points in 16 games this sea­son. He al­ready has two game-win­ning goals and as­sisted on an­other game-win­ner. Draw up a list of Hart Tro­phy can­di­dates so far and his name would be among them.

Even if he is hob­bling, Toronto is a bet­ter team with Matthews in the lineup. But you could say the same thing about An­der­sen, who pro­vides Toronto with a far bet­ter chance of suc­cess than backup goalie Cur­tis Mcel­hin­ney.

The only dif­fer­ence is that it’s be­come ac­cept­able for start­ing goalies to get the sec­ond night of a back-to-back off. Ask­ing a for­ward or de­fence­man to do the same runs counter to a hockey cul­ture where play­ers hide con­cus­sions and huff smelling salts on the bench. That could ex­plain why the league in­tro­duced man­dated bye weeks.

With­out them, play­ers such as iron man An­drew Cogliano, who played in his 800th con­sec­u­tive game this week, would never sit out. Even Leafs head coach Mike Bab­cock, who ad­mit­ted some play­ers have taken rest days this sea­son, joked that “ev­ery­one would play ev­ery night if I was in charge of that.”

“For sure, no ques­tion about it,” said Bab­cock. “But some­times you get bumped or you get hacked or things hap­pen. The other things we did ear­lier is we sat out Marty (Matt Mar­tin) and JVR (James van Riems­dyk) one time.

“You’ve got to try to use your head the best you can.”

It’s not like this in the NBA, where rest­ing star play­ers has gone from that quirky thing the San An­to­nio Spurs did to what’s now be­come an ac­cepted prac­tice.

Ev­ery team does it to some ex­tent. Of course, it’s eas­ier to do in a sport in which teams such as the Golden State War­riors have al­ready locked up a play­off spot by Novem­ber.

The NHL has far more par­ity to risk go­ing into a game with a dis­ad­van­taged ros­ter. Ev­ery point, whether it’s in April or Oc­to­ber, mat­ters in the stand­ings. At the same time, tak­ing one player off an NHL ros­ter should have less of an im­pact as tak­ing a player off an NBA ros­ter, since NHL star play­ers are on the ice sig­nif­i­cantly less than NBA stars.

In the past, the Pen­guins have gone weeks and months with­out Sid­ney Crosby or Ev­geni Malkin in the lineup and not missed a beat. The Cana­di­ens are un­de­feated in the three games that Carey Price has been out, while the Se­na­tors were with­out Erik Karls­son for their first five games of the sea­son and ended up not los­ing any of those in reg­u­la­tion.

While Matthews is im­por­tant to the Leafs’ suc­cess, this is a team that has so much depth that Mitch Marner was play­ing on the fourth line and Nhl-cal­i­bre play­ers such as Josh Leivo and Kasperi Ka­pa­nen are un­able to get into the lineup on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Toronto should sur­vive. And Matthews, when­ever he is healthy — or well-rested — will be the bet­ter for it.

GETTY IM­AGES

De­spite what was termed as “sore­ness” Maple Leafs star Aus­ton Matthews (left) played against Ve­gas on Mon­day, but sat out against the Wild last night.

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