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Matthews sent a message to the hockey world with a cross-check

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Could it turn out that $116,402.50 is well spent? An interesting question.

When you’re an NHL star in a league that has only a passing interest in allowing its best to be its best – and is plagued by consistently poor officiating and an unqualified disciplinary officer who protects the morons but not the stars – it becomes a huge challenge to just play through the shit night after night. Connor McDavid finally got to the point where he had had enough, and this week we found out that Auston Matthews had reached the same point.

Listen, Rasmus Dahlin is a very good player with a lot of upside, but Ed Van Impe isn’t. When non-combatants from non-playoff teams like Dahlin start shooting for free and the team you’re playing for chooses not to surround you with players assigned to rush to your defense, there will come a time when a player like Matthews will have to respond decisively.

In this case, it was a cross-check on Dahlin’s neck, which earned Matthews a two-game suspension and the aforementioned loss of revenue.

Without the best forward in the league, the Maple Leafs still beat Dallas and Carolina, a significant collective feather in the team’s cap. Matthews apologized and felt remorse when he finally spoke publicly about the issue and will return against Nashville on Saturday.

Teams may have learned from this incident that the league’s top scorer can snap and will try to push him to similar responses in the future. At the same time, individual opponents may also have learned for the first time that Matthews is capable of reacting in the most hostile manner when manhandled, and that could work to his advantage.

He will still have to fight for his place in the playoffs this spring, more than ever. If opponents think he’ll take whatever is handed out, knowing full well that Gary Bettman’s toothless administration will always favor the grunt over the gifted, then there’ll never be a reason for those opponents to back down.

If they think, on the other hand, that he could just turn around and inflict his own punishment, that could work in his favor. You might wish the NHL didn’t work that way, but the sad reality is that it does.

Remember, more than one Leafs fan wasn’t very happy when Matthews’ response to being hit from behind three times by Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot in last year’s playoffs was mocking Chiarot, as if the shots were ineffective and a bit ridiculous. It was like he was saying, “Seriously, are you going to let this guy get away with this?”

Well, of course the officials did. Chiarot maintained it for the entire series – especially after the whistle, when there is effectively no NHL rulebook. It was his value. It wasn’t like he was going to score a goal or anything. Would Chiarot have backed off if he thought Matthews might turn around and give him a lumber sandwich? May be. Maybe not.

But unless Matthews loses his five-goal bulge in contention for the Rocket Richard Trophy in part because he missed two games this week, the suspension will only have hurt his wallet and may even have him. aid. His team still won, and responding the way he did to Dahlin’s cross-check and clumsy throw attempt certainly caught the attention of the hockey world.

Matthews has already proven he’ll take a hit to make a play. He has the puck as much as anyone in this league, but has only taken six minor penalties. The fact that he hasn’t lost his temper like this before is proof of an impressive willingness to absorb punishment in search of attacking success. He’s not a player with a short fuse.

But when Bettman’s lowest common denominator league goes from inadequate regular season rule enforcement to absolute playoff farce, there are times when being prepared to take a slash or a spear to make a game will not work in a star player. to favor.

Doug Gilmour had to play like he could crack at any moment and knock somebody’s teeth out because he was still a little guy playing against bigger opponents. Mats Sundin gradually learned that it was useful to distribute punishment and not just absorb it, and that made him a better playoff performer. Where the line is drawn and at some point reacting to an opponent’s tactics begins to undermine your own game are issues every player needs to understand.

We know a huge question for a Leafs team that’s lost five first-round playoffs in five years will be whether its top forwards — Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares — are going to find the offense they need. this spring. Nylander won against the Canadians. Tavares got injured and couldn’t play. Marner didn’t score in the series, while Matthews scored in Game 2, but hasn’t scored in the past five games.

For Marner, he needs to prove that his skills and intelligence can be replicated in a playoff situation. He doesn’t have the ability to use size or muscle to create space and opportunity.

For Matthews, it will come down to whether he repels when pushed and then rises above the scrum to deliver something special offensively. We’ve seen Sidney Crosby do it many times. They will test you and test you until they come to the conclusion that there is a cost, either physically or on the scoreboard, and that’s what Matthews has to demonstrate.

Keeping it at a level where it won’t be suspended is obviously important. But Leafs fans won’t mind seeing a little more fire from their best player. They never did.

Damien Cox is a former Star sportswriter who is currently a freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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