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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, left, loses the puck as he goes around Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo at the Air Canada Centre on Feb. 20, 2018.John E. Sokolowski

If there is ever a good time to lose your budding superstar to an injury, for the Toronto Maple Leafs that time is now.

Sure, the Leafs are facing two consecutive games against their most likely opponents in the first round of the NHL playoffs – either the Boston Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning – but their own playoff position is practically written in stone. Going into Saturday night's game at home against the Bruins, with a road game to follow Monday against the Lightning, the Maple Leafs are 21 points ahead of the Florida Panthers in the fight for third place in the Atlantic Division with 19 games left in their regular-season schedule. They are also 16 points clear of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who held the second and final wild-card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference before Friday's games.

So even if Auston Matthews is out of the lineup for 10 days or more with what is suspected to be a shoulder injury, what is the big deal?

"I think we're in a good spot," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said on Friday. "He's hurt and it gives him a chance to get freshened up. Other guys get a chance to play. We're playing two really good teams, they're going to test us and it will be fine. You want to be one of the best, play the best and find out if you're any good."

It still isn't known how long Matthews, who was crunched between two New York Islanders players late in Thursday's 4-3 shootout win, will be out of the lineup. He spent Friday getting an MRI to determine the extent of the damage. Babcock said more will be known on Saturday.

The coach also said Matthews's status is officially "day-to-day," which in the Babcock translation manual usually means seven to 10 days. It is the third time Matthews will be out for more than a few days this season, as he missed four games in November with what is thought to have been a back injury and six more in December with a concussion.

"Yeah, it's all part of the business," said Babcock, who presumably was looking for laughs when he professed to be foggy on Matthews's previous injuries. "I don't even remember them all. What was the first one? I can't remember what happened. It's hockey. You're going to get bumped into. Some years are luckier than others."

The Leafs have a 6-4 record through Matthews's first two injury sabbaticals. They went 4-0 in the first one and 2-4 in the second, which included a three-game losing streak.

"He's an amazing player," Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen said. "We hope he isn't out too long, but believe we have a deep enough team to remain competitive if everyone does their job."

What is important now, the coach said, is the vacancy at centre on the top line creates opportunities throughout the lineup. That starts with William Nylander, who will move from right wing on the big line to take Matthews's spot at centre. It filters down to Josh Leivo, who finally gets a chance to play after spending all 23 games since Dec. 31 sitting in the press box.

"I've been in this situation before, it's nothing new," Leivo said. "I've just got to be ready when I'm playing and help the team win. I think there'll be some good karma my way. Hopefully I can get some good bounces early and get the legs under me."

Leivo joins centre Dominic Moore and left winger Leo Komarov on the fourth line. Kasperi Kapanen, who has been wowing the fans with his speed after finally earning a permanent promotion to the Leafs in late January, moves from the fourth line to right wing on the third with Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk. And Connor Brown was bumped from the third line to right wing with Nylander and Zach Hyman on the first line.

Babcock would not confirm Leivo will be in the lineup but that was the indication at Friday's practice. The coach also said Nylander will start at centre and "if things go good, Willy's just going to stay there."

The immediate problem is gaining ground on the Bruins and the Lightning, since the Leafs still hope to displace at least one of them for second spot in the Atlantic Division and home-ice advantage in the first playoff round. The Leafs, with 81 points, are one behind the second-place Bruins, who have five games in hand on them, and four behind the Lightning, who have two games in hand.

However, in addition to being without Matthews and his team-leading 28 goals and 50 points, the Leafs did not look ready to challenge the Bruins in their previous meeting. The Bruins handily out-skated and out-muscled them in winning 4-1 in Boston on Feb. 3.

"After that game we watched a lot of video," Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. "We want to win just as bad as anybody else. [The Bruins] are playing well and they're making a push.

"They've got lots of speed, they're physical. They are able to use [size and speed] fairly well, dumping it in, going after it and playing off the cycle. We've got to be aware of that and break the puck out fast."

Former Maple Leafs captain Darryl Sittler says Johnny Bower left a “lasting impression” on everyone he met. Some of hockey's biggest names gathered in Toronto on Wednesday to pay tribute to the Hall of Fame goaltender.

The Canadian Press

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