Auston Matthews glad to be back, but ‘disappointed’ in severity of his suspension

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Auston Matthews’ two-game suspension is over and the Maple Leafs superstar is ready to move on.

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Not before, however, making it clear on Friday that he didn’t think the punishment levied by the National Hockey League fit the crime.

Matthews will be back at his usual spot between Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner on the Leafs’ top line when Toronto visits the Nashville Predators on Saturday, having served his sentence for cross-checking Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabers in the neck.

“I was a little bit disappointed,” Matthews said after practice at the Ford Performance Centre. “I think (it was) a little bit more than I was expecting.

“I recognized as a player I have to be in control of my stick and my intent was never to catch Dahlin up high, but I did. I made a mistake and I recognize that deserves some sort of punishment. I just thought two games was a lot.”

The incident happened on Sunday in Hamilton during the third period of the Heritage Classic. Matthews and Dahlin each got cross-checking minors after mixing it up in front of the Sabers net.

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Previously in his NHL career, Matthews had not received supplemental discipline from the league, either through fine or suspension.

“That was my first time experiencing one of those (hearings) and I don’t really know what else to say about the whole experience,” the Hart Trophy candidate said. “There’s always going to be two opinions or multiple opinions. I saw it a certain way and they saw it a different way. I’m happy to be back. It has been a long week, but I’m excited to be playing.”

Matthews, who has four goals in eight career games against Nashville, will resume his quest for his first 50-goal season in the NHL. With 45 goals, Matthews had five more than the next closest goal-scorers, Chris Kreider of the New York Rangers and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers.

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To little surprise, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe will stick with Erik Kallgren in net.

Kallgren has stopped 79 of 82 shots for a .963 save percentage in his three NHL appearances, including his first two starts this week, helping guide the Leafs to victories against Dallas and Carolina as Matthews watched from the sideline.

“I talked to (Kallgren) after the game very briefly (Thursday) and he was pretty stoic,” Keefe said. “He is keeping his emotions in check.
“I’m sure, or at least I hope, that he is enjoying this. He certainly should be. At the same time, there is a professionalism and business-like attitude that is keeping him working.

“It thought he really pushed in practice (Friday) and was strong and solid. That’s another step in the process for him of continuing to earn the confidence of himself and the group, to come back and practice today and battle and keep the puck out of the net.”

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Forwards David Kampf and Ondrej Kase will play in Nashville after being given the day off from practice.

Expect two of Nick Robertson, Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford to be scratched. Simmonds was back after one day of non-roster status for personal reasons. Keefe wouldn’t say who would sit, as he had not communicated that to the players yet.

Defenseman Travis Dermott appears to be back in after sitting the past three games. Dermott practiced alongside Rasmus Sandin, with Timothy Liljegren working out as the seventh defenseman. It could amount to Dermott’s last game as a Leaf, as the thinking is he stands a good chance of being traded before the NHL deadline on Monday afternoon.

Matthews, meanwhile, had eight goals in five games before he got the league-mandated break. While there could be some initial rust as he goes about his business, expect him to return to keeping his emotions in line if the game in Nashville gets physical.

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And that Matthews has drawn just eight penalties this season? He refused to dwell on that.

“I’m pretty composed in general, so that stuff doesn’t really bother me,” Matthews said. “My job is to go out there and play hockey and I can only control so much.

“I go out there, try to play hard and compete and do what I can to help the team win, just play my game.”

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TAVARES TERRIFIC, GOAL AUSTON ABCK ON TOP LINE

Auston Matthews wasn’t going anywhere.

Captain John Tavares filled in nicely between Michael Bunting and Mitch Marner as Matthews served a two-game suspension, but there was no hesitation on the part of coach Sheldon Keefe to put Matthews back at the No. 1 center spot.

Not that there should have been.

“I really didn’t weigh it,” Keefe said. “That line had been going so well and I don’t think it would be fair to Auston, frankly, the way that he was playing, to go out, come back and then have things change on him.

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“The fact that we got to look at John in that spot is good and healthy for us, and maybe something we can go to down the line. It just makes sense to go back to what was working.”

Matthews has been skating since he was suspended on Monday, but figured there will be an adjustment to get up to game speed.

“It’s tough,” Matthews said. “You’re playing every other night and then you sit for almost a full week. It has been nice to be able to skate and work with some of the development guys and keep in good shape, but there’s nothing like playing in games.

“I sense there’ll be a little bit of rust, but once you get your feet wet, it should all come back.”

tkoshan@postmedia.com

twitter.com/koshtorontosun

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