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Leafs’ Auston Matthews says he’s feeling better, but no timetable for return

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews is pictured during third period NHL hockey action against the Columbus Blue Jackets in Toronto on Feb. 14, 2018.

Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews is inching closer to a return to the Toronto lineup. When that will be remains anyone's guess.

The 20-year-old took part in his second straight full practice Tuesday, but continued to wear a red non-contact jersey.

Matthews has been on the shelf since injuring his shoulder after getting sandwiched between two Islanders late in Toronto's 4-3 shootout victory over New York at Air Canada Centre on Feb. 22.

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Matthews, who had been skating on his own before briefly joining teammates for a couple of on-ice sessions last week, said he doesn't have a timeline for a return.

"It's been a process, I guess," Matthews said in his first comments since the injury. "Sometimes it's just the way it goes. You just do your best to get back and feel better and stay in shape.

Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews says recovering from his Feb. 22 shoulder injury is a gradual process. Matthews took part in his second straight full practice Tuesday, but continued to wear a red non-contact jersey. The Canadian Press

"I'm feeling fine, getting better. Felt better every day. It's nice to get on the ice with the guys and take reps in that kind of circumstance instead of just skating by yourself so you get your timing back, which is a big key in returning to play."

Toronto struggled to a 1-2-2 record without Matthews before picking up a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night. He also missed four games in November with a back problem before sitting out six more in December because of what was believed to be a concussion.

"It's obviously frustrating, no question about that," Matthews said of having to sit and watch. "Stuff happens, everything happens for a reason. You just kind of stick with it and do your best to get back, get healthy.

"I've been doing a good job of staying in shape with my conditioning and working with the trainers as far as rehab goes."

Matthews said he suffered a similar injury to his shoulder "a long time ago," adding it was just bad luck to get caught between two opponents.

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"Tough to brace yourself from both sides there," he said. "It was just kind of a fluky play. Unfortunate, but it happens."

The Maple Leafs open a stretch of three games in four nights Wednesday at home against Dallas before visiting Buffalo on Thursday and hosting Montreal on Saturday.

Matthews won't suit up for the Dallas game, and with the team unlikely to practise until after the matchup with Montreal, next week could be the earliest Matthews sees action.

"Obviously he's coming every day, I could just tell by the amount of physical contact he was in (Tuesday) versus (Monday)," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. "He's going in the right direction, feeling good.

"He'll be over-ready before he gets in."

Despite missing 16 games this season, Matthews still leads Toronto in goals with 28 and sits second in points with 50.

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With the Leafs almost assured of finishing third in the Atlantic Division, there's some thought Matthews will benefit from his time out of the lineup when the playoffs begin next month.

Just don't count him among that group.

"I don't really buy into that notion," Matthews said. "I'd rather play."

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