Leafs’ solution for slumping Matthews and Nylander simple — but not easy

Leafs’ solution for slumping Matthews and Nylander simple — but not easy
Thanks to scoring slumps by their best shooters, lacklustre play all around and, of course, some injuries, the Maple Leafs have dropped in the standings to the point where they may soon be fighting for a wild-card spot rather than home-ice advantage in the playoffs.

It certainly wasn’t how Leafs coach Mike Babcock drew up the season.

Leaf Auston Matthews had his chances on goalie Roberto Luongo’s doorstep in Friday night’s 3-1 loss to the Panthers — and the night before in Tampa — with nothing to show for it on the scoresheet.  (Joel Auerbach / GETTY IMAGES)

Auston Matthews and William Nylander have gone cold, and the Leafs have gone from winning games they should lose to losing games they should win.

“It’s about putting together a full 60 minutes and all of us buying in, every single guy,” Matthews said after Friday night’s 3-1 loss to the Florida Panthers in Sunrise.

“We saw it (in Thursday’s 4-2 win in Tampa). Everybody bought in, the full 60 minutes (against) the best team in the league. That’s what you need every night: every guy to show up, do their job, work harder than the guy across from him and make sure it’s a complete game.

“It’s frustrating, of course, the last couple of weeks or so. If the chances aren’t coming, that’s when you really get frustrated. For me, (I’m) getting chances, just not getting the bounces.”

Matthews hasn’t scored in six games and has just one goal in his last 12 — though he picked up eight assists in that span.

“(In Tampa), the puck is laying there on the goal line and doesn’t creep over,” he said. “Getting goals called back, hitting posts. There’s no excuses. I’m a guy that wants to score goals. I need to do everything I can to put the puck in the net … hopefully they start to go in.”

Overall, Matthews is still averaging 2.01 goals per 60 minutes, fourth-best in the league, and 4.22 points per 60, which ranks fifth-best.

As for Nylander, whose goal against the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 3 remains his only one in 19 games since the end of a contract impasse, he is among the league leaders in one obscure stat: his 33 shots on goal have been taken from an average of 24.3 feet, third-closest in the NHL.

“I think the whole key is just work,” Babcock said. “You talk about scoring. They’ve had lots of different linemates and lots of different opportunities … It’s not only a physical battle, it’s a mental battle. When things are going great, that’s great. When they’re not going good, you’ve got to dig in and go to work.”

If there’s a theme to Matthews’ season it’s been constant change. Unlike his first two years with Zach Hyman and Nylander, forming the team’s top line, Matthews has played with just about everybody. The best chemistry so far has been with Kasperi Kapanen, while the once magical Matthews-Nylander combo has run dry.

“We’re just looking for good chemistry, get lines clicking,” Matthews said of the constant juggling. “We’ve been pretty inconsistent. To start the year, we put together a couple of really solid games ... I think you expect lines to get juggled to get certain guys going, or see if certain guys can click and generate that offence.”

No time like the present, with the Arizona Coyotes in town Sunday evening.

“I think there’s always highs and lows,” Babcock said after Friday’s defeat. “We’ve been a pretty good team. I think we’ve just got to keep getting better. The thing about the National Hockey League is it’s very, very tight. If you don’t have your A-game and they jump on you, you’re not going to win. It’s just that simple.”
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