After an unusually long break in the schedule, the Leafs return to action Thursday night when the New Jersey Devils visit Air Canada Centre for the second time this season. Toronto's four-day layoff between games - combined with the possible return of centre Auston Matthews to the lineup - has everyone in the organization raring to go.
"Sometimes when you get a few days off you relax, and nothing wrong with relaxing physically, but we want to be engaged mentally and be dialled-in here tomorrow," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock told Leafs Nation Network after practice Wednesday. "(The Devils) play fast, they're playing well, and we're going to have to play well. But ideally, we get all hands on deck and get playing."
Two of the hands that have been under close watch belong to Matthews, who has missed the past three games with an upper-body injury. The sophomore was back on the ice Tuesday and rejoined his teammates Wednesday for a full practice, an indication - although not a guarantee - he could be back in the lineup to help the Leafs avenge a 6-3 loss to the Devils on Oct. 11. Matthews didn't miss a single game in his rookie year, and the 20-year-old looked happy to be back.
"I feel a lot better," Matthews said after practice. "It definitely has progressed over the week and it's gotten better day-by-day. The week (off has) been pretty boring for me, just not being able to skate and just watching from the outside in. So it's just nice to be back on the ice with everybody."
The Buds have played smarter, more disciplined hockey in Matthews' absence, beating the Minnesota Wild and the Boston Bruins (in a back-to-back, home-and-home series) to stretch their win streak to four games. Toronto has surrendered just five goals in those three contests, something that also made Matthews' time on the sidelines a little easier to digest.
"It was great," Matthews said of Toronto's focus and determination in his absence. "All three of those games - especially the Boston back-to-back - (were) pretty physical games. So we really tightened up on defence, which is great. It's what we wanted to do, and when you win a (schedule) segment, it's a good feeling."
Babcock agreed that Leafs players have shown more resolve and structure without one of their key contributors. However, he cautioned that, whenever Matthews does return to the lineup - the decision on that will be made on game day - Toronto can't go back to the type of freewheeling, rush-based hockey that got their defence into trouble earlier this season.
"I like a lot of things that happened when (Matthews) hasn't been playing," Babcock said. "We had to dig in a little bit, and you have to play a different way. We gave up shots when he was away, but our scoring chances-against were way down, and especially our high-quality were down, which is important for us, and it gives your goalies a better chance to be good. So now are we coming out as soon as he's back to race to 10 (goals) again? Ideally not."
One of the players who has raised his game of late is winger Connor Brown. With two goals and three points in his past five games, Brown's seven goals in 19 games so far this year have him nearly halfway to the 20-goal mark he reached last season with Toronto - and the 23-year-old still has room to grow.
"He's that good and he works that hard," Babcock said of Brown. "I said to him today, 'Did you check out the lineup?', he said, 'Yeah,', I said, 'You're getting screwed again,' and he just laughed. He knows he ain't going to be there for long. That's for warmup, right?; you've got to put him somewhere.
"The other thing about it - he's mentally tough enough, it doesn't bother him. He brings it every single day. And he's a good player. I don't know how many goals he's got, (but) he just checks, he scores, he works, he competes every day. That's what you want from guys. So he's like money in the bank."
Regardless of whether Matthews is back for Thursday's tilt, Babcock is encouraged by the way the Leafs pulled out of a tough stretch and regained their collective confidence to get back on the winning side of things and improve their record to 12-7-0. Having more than half-of-a-week off is a blessing to let injured players heal up, but that won't be a good excuse for not coming out and playing a savvy game against New Jersey, who've won two in a row and are 6-1-1 on the road. Indeed, there was no excuse for sloppy play when the schedule was particularly punishing, and Toronto's players found a way to fight through it and put together a string of wins.
"We got in our own way for a while," Babcock said of the Leafs' difficulties in late October. "And we've just had four days off, (but prior to that) you played every second day and more and travelled back and forth, so the schedule was unbelievable. And there's no excuse for the schedule, but sometimes the schedule is what the schedule is, and you're running on vapour. So you've got to use your brain. And when you put that together with not using your brain, it makes it hard. You look slow, and you don't look that smart."