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Matthias making himself at home

by Adam Proteau / Toronto Maple Leafs

As a hometown Toronto kid, Shawn Matthias began living the purest vision of his NHL dream the moment he signed with the Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent this summer. And, as evidenced in his subtle-yet-important contributions during the Buds’ 4-2 loss to Winnipeg Wednesday, Matthias is settling in nicely and proving his value to the team.

“It’s getting better,” Matthias, who grew up in suburban Mississauga, just west of the downtown Toronto core, said of his game and performance on the penalty kill. “Still some errors – they had some good chances late in the second period there – but every day we’re working on it. If we’re going to be a good team, we need to have a good power play and a good penalty kill. So guys that are on it, we’ve got to take a lot of pride in it.”

Once again, the Leafs played a structured, disciplined game Wednesday, and once again, goalie James Reimer gave his team a chance to win by turning aside 30 of 33 shots. A late-game breakdown with 2:05 remaining gave Winnipeg a 3-2 advantage and an empty-net marker sealed the win for the visitors. But for 58 minutes, Toronto held their own against a likely playoff team in the difficult Western Conference.

And part of that came thanks to Matthias’ solid play on the penalty kill. Matthias was averaging 13:33 heading into Wednesday’s game, and although he didn’t record a point against the Jets, his work on Toronto’s penalty kill allowed the Buds to kill off both of Winnipeg’s man advantages. The Leafs now have allowed just one power play goal in Toronto’s past 10 PKs, and Matthias’ efforts are not going unnoticed by teammates or head coach Mike Babcock.

“Our PK, I thought we had some good kills tonight,” Babcock said. “They’ve got a pretty good hockey club, but I thought we did good things and gave ourselves a chance.”

Babcock’s team won its first home game of the season Monday against Dallas, and they had the chance to put together their first win streak of the campaign. A 2-on-1 break for Winnipeg at the end of a Leafs power play was the difference in the Jets’ victory, but Toronto’s coach refused to dwell for long on the end result.

“I thought we played well through two (periods), and I didn’t think our first 10 (minutes) of the third was as good,” Babcock said. “But lots of good things happened for our hockey club. We looked like a competitive, organized group today. I’m disappointed with the outcome…but I liked our group tonight. We were competitive.”

For Matthias, who signed a one-year contract with Toronto this summer, it has taken a while to adjust to his new team. But the soft-spoken 27-year-old, who has one goal and two points in 12 games, is finding more comfort with his teammates and that increased comfort level is showing in his on-ice performance.

“It’s definitely always a change, you’re still settling in,” said Matthias, who played for Florida and Vancouver over the course of his previous seven NHL seasons. “I feel like the first few weeks, you’re pretty quiet and keep to yourself, and as things go on you start to come out of your shell. For myself, since I’ve been feeling more comfortable around the guys, I’ve been playing better.”

Matthias is also benefiting from the input of Babcock.

“He’s a competitor, all right,” Matthias said of his coach. “He wants to win. His Xs and Os, it’s amazing how well he knows the game. I heard that coming in from guys who’ve played for him, and if you look at his resume, you see he’s won everywhere. It’s great to learn from him, but like him and like everyone else, we all want to win hockey games, and we’ve got to start doing that.”

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