Henderson, Nevada – Auston Matthews believes the deep, painful battle scars from past supplement failures will eventually pay off.
The Maple Leafs star center, in fact, has quite a few options.
Toronto suffered another bitter first-round disappointment last spring, falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games after leading 3-2 in the series.
But that loss, at least on some level, looked different in and out of the Toronto locker room.
Unlike their crushing 3-1 demolition of the underdog’s Montreal Canadiens in 2021 or the seven-game losing streak to the Boston Bruins in 2019 and 2020, the Leafs haven’t shriveled in the face-off with both teams. Defending the Stanley Cup champion in a match made up of thin margins.
“The result is still disappointing,” Matthews said Friday at the NHL/NHLPA players’ media tour out of Las Vegas. “But I think there’s a lot of things you can take from – a lot of positives – and move on.
“You cannot live in the past.”
The league’s top scorer with 60 goals in a decade and Toronto’s first Hart Cup winner as an NHL MVP since 1955 need look no further than last season’s Stanley Cup Final to back up his argument.
Lightning suffered a string of upsets before lifting the hockey holy grail in 2020 and 2021, while the Colorado Avalanche finally overcame a second-round hurdle en route to winning a second franchise title in June.
“It took them a long time to win,” Matthews said of Tampa and Colorado. “They had to go through a lot.
“We are all working towards the same goal.”
The path to that goal begins by bypassing the opening round for the first time since 2004 – before Twitter and before the league’s salary cap – for a franchise that hasn’t won the sport’s final award since 1967 when the NHL consisted of just six clubs.
“Every team and every ride is different,” Matthews said. We write our own story.
“We are all very excited.”
Morgan Riley, Leafs defenseman, added that a large part of that motivation comes from the way the Tampa series played — and the narrative in its aftermath.
“It really doesn’t make you feel better,” he said. “Honestly, that doesn’t give you any pride or anything in terms of how you handle it emotionally. It’s almost worse because you’re there.”
“It just makes you want to come back and want to win a lot more. If you use it as a tool to motivate you and lead your off-season training, then hopefully, losses like this will lead to your success day.”
Toronto general manager Kyle Dupas once again resisted any potential impulse to make a change behind the bench or with his roster, instead deciding to put it back together with head coach Sheldon Keefe in the reins of much the same core group led by Matthews, Riley, Mitch Marner, Jon Tavares and William Nylander.
“It’s a confidence booster for us to have their trust,” Riley, whose eight-year contract extension is about to begin, said of the front office in Toronto. “To keep the players together, to give the guys a chance to correct the ship and change the scenario, I think this is a great opportunity. That’s what motivates them so much.”
“You lost this group together, and it really makes you want to win together so much more.”
Toronto’s biggest question mark was in the fold after goalkeeper Jack Campbell signed the Edmonton Oilers on free agency.
Matt Murray was acquired by Ottawa Senators in a trade, while Ilya Samsonov signed a deal with The Leaves in July after his split from Washington Capitals.
Riley, who played with Murray on the North American team at the 2016 Hockey World Cup, said the two-time Cup winner with Pittsburgh pedigree should help Toronto take the most important position in the game despite a tough two-season stint in the nation’s capital.
“He’s a great goalkeeper with a great career,” said Riley. “When you can add a player like that to your locker room who has achieved success in the Stanley Cup – in this position in particular – is positive.
“It makes our team better.”
And with the opening of training camp next week, the quest to finally overcome the watershed hump begins again.
“We have to stick to it, we have to be flexible, we have to work harder,” Riley said. “All our players have agreed. We will not give up.
We will not give up on this process. “