The Canadian Press
TORONTO–Auston Matthews says the last month has been torture watching his Toronto Maple Leafs.
The team’s star centre jumped right back in the action without missing a beat last night.
Matthews had two goals and an assist in his return to the lineup after missing 14 games with a shoulder injury as the Leafs beat the San Jose Sharks 5-3 for their third-straight victory.
“It kind of just eats away at you,” Matthews said of his time on the shelf.
“Watching what we’ve been able to do the last month, we’ve played pretty exceptional at times,” he noted.
The 21-year-old was exceptional himself early with a goal and an assist on two power plays before adding the exclamation point on a third-period deflection as Toronto pulled even with the surprising Buffalo Sabres atop the NHL’s overall standings.
In between, however, Matthews didn’t think he was all that impressive in his first game back playing on a line with speedsters Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson.
“After the first I felt terrible,” he admitted. “The second period, I didn’t feel too good and then in the third period I got my legs.”
John Tavares (two) and Patrick Marleau also scored for Toronto (18-8-0) while Mitch Marner added three assists as the Leafs went 3-for-4 on the power play against the league’s best penalty-killing unit.
Johnsson had two assists.
Frederik Andersen made 38 saves to improve to 8-2-0 over his last 10 starts.
Tomas Hertl, Joe Pavelski and Melker Karlsson replied for San Jose (12-9-5), which dropped to 1-2-2 over its last five games.
“I don’t think we’re close,” said Sharks’ centre Logan Couture, who set up two goals.
“We show spurts and signs that we’re capable [of playing with the best in the league], but we haven’t put together an effort against a top-quality team.”
Aaron Dell made 24 stops as No. 1 goalie Martin Jones got the night off following the Sharks’ 3-2 overtime loss to Buffalo the previous night.
“You’re not going to win on the road giving up two power-play goals, [let alone] three,” said San Jose head coach Peter DeBoer.
“Our attention to detail on the penalty kill is as good as anybody in the league,” he noted.
“It wasn’t tonight.”
Matthews suffered the shoulder injury after taking a clean hit early in the Leafs’ 3-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 27.
He stormed out of the gate with 10 goals and six assists through seven games this season, but then was held off the scoresheet in three-straight outings before getting hurt.
The Calder Trophy winner as rookie-of-the-year in 2016-17, Matthews was sidelined a total of 20 games last season thanks to three separate injuries, including the same problem with his right shoulder.
Matthews made an immediate impact last night, taking a pass from Marner and finding Tavares at the edge of the crease on a power play for his 16th goal of the season at 3:38.
San Jose got that one back at 10:40 when Hertl banged the puck past Andersen on a Sharks’ man advantage, but Toronto restored its lead just 39 seconds later on another power play when Matthews ripped his 11th upstairs shortside on Dell.
Matthews, who said Tuesday he’s been “bored to death” as he recuperated, now has scored in all four career games where he’s returned from an injury.
Erik Karlsson nearly tied it on a point shot for San Jose that hit the shaft of Andersen’s stick later in the period, and Toronto’s goalie had to be sharp on another man advantage with stops on both Pavelski and Evander Kane.
Nazem Kadri hit the post on a breakaway for Toronto right after his penalty expired but Tavares made it 3-1 with 16.3 seconds left in the first when he finished off another brilliant pass from Marner for his 17th of the season.
A third assist could have been credited to Leafs’ assistant equipment manager Bobby Hastings, who got a new stick to Marner after his broke right before the sequence that led to the goal.
“Put him on the scoresheet,” Matthews joked. “That was unbelievable.”
Toronto’s power play connected a third-successive time at 1:53 of the second when Marleau beat Dell for his sixth.
The 39-year-old Marleau, who played 19 seasons with the Sharks, had never scored against his former team in three games as a member of the Leafs but now has at least one goal against all 31 NHL franchises.
Pavelski got San Jose back within two when he scored his eighth on yet another power play that Andersen could only get a piece of at 4:18.
But Matthews put the game out of reach for good with his 12th at 10:59 of the third when tipped home Johnsson’s shot before Melker Karlsson scored his second with under two minutes to go.
“As of late we’ve been playing well,” Matthews noted. “It’s nice to be back and be part of it.”
Elsewhere in the NHL, Dallas beat Calgary 4-3 (OT), Detroit nipped St. Louis 4-3, Anaheim edged Florida 3-2, and Colorado doubled Pittsburgh 6-3.