KOSHAN: Matthews comes into contact with Leafs camp wrist recovery

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Auston Matthews wanted to hit someone.

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Or, at the very least, fight for the puck against volunteer Maple Leafs teammates.

At the Ford Performance Center on Sunday, the Leafs superstar center called out to participate in contact drills for the first time at training camp.

Matthews’ comfort in getting a little physical was a vital step on his way back to action after off-season left wrist surgery.

“He did a lot more than we expected, frankly,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “He wanted to continue.

I shot a lot harder with the puck, I thought, really leaning into the receiving shots.

“He chose to keep exercising and making contacts, which we didn’t expect him to do, but he wanted to. It is very positive.

Matthews wasn’t on the ice for the entire Group 2 practice session. Once the scrum started, he left and was replaced by Brett Seney (the Sunday placeholder prize winner, apparently) on the front row of the Leafs between Nick Ritchie and Mitch Marner.

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How important is it for Matthews to play in a preseason game? That possibility would present itself on Saturday, when the Leafs host the Ottawa Senators in their exhibition final.

“There would be value in that, but we’re not pushing for it,” Keefe said. “When he says he’s ready and the medical team believes he’s ready, he’ll be there. Whether it’s pre-season, whether it’s Game 1 (of the regular season on October 13 against the Montreal Canadiens) or after that, we don’t know. But we are heading in the right direction.

RIELLY RIGHT

Veteran forward Jason Spezza has no doubts defenseman Morgan Rielly, who plays in a contract year, will not be negatively affected as he advances to a big salary, whether with the Leafs or another club.

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“I know a lot is being done in the media about contracts, but as players you prepare the same way,” said Spezza. “When you’re a guy that’s a long time pro like that, I don’t think it affects you. He is focused on the here and now.

The oldest current Leaf, Rielly has seen a lot in Toronto since his 2013-14 rookie season.

Playoff success has eluded the Leafs during his blue-and-white tenure, but Rielly is heartened by what he’s seen during camp as the Leafs are in the early days of their bid for success next spring.

“We have a great mentality, a great attitude, I think we’ve learned a lot, we’ve grown a lot,” said Rielly. “Guys get to this point in camp where we want to start playing more games, get more involved.”

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Once the regular season has started and the pressure is on, Rielly will welcome him.

“My take on all of this (fishbowl idea) is that it’s a bit of a stretch,” Rielly said. “We are very lucky to play in this market, we have big fans. As far as the people who come your way, it’s a cool thing that I have to experience and I don’t think there is a side that can be negative. If the fans aren’t nice to you, that’s their right. It’s a free world.

“(Being a Leaf) is all I’ve ever known. I am happy here. I love the city, this logo means a lot to me and I try to enjoy the work every day. I am no different from anyone else in this sense.

BULK SHEETS

A few players on the bubble in a fourth row battle – Pierre Engvall and Adam Brooks – are well known to Keefe. What do they need to do to stand out in the coming week? “I’m looking for these guys to break up, especially the ones who are American League (hockey) players,” Keefe said. “They should be on another level because of the experience they’ve had. If you’re an everyday NHL player, these things can stand out. I commented on (Ondrej) Kase at one point – it’s clear when you watch him that he’s an NHL player. He jumps on you. This is the level of separation you are looking for. These are the kinds of decisions players make for you. The decisions should really be obvious if you are an NHL player. … Keefe went back to his usual defensive pairs in the top six, so Rielly was with TJ Brodie, Muzzin with Justin Holl and Rasmus Sandin with Travis Dermott… It’s not that easy up front, because the decisions remain. Keefe said Group 1 players will play in Ottawa on Monday night. Lines for that group on Sunday included Brooks between Engvall (who is returning from a hip problem and may not be present) and Wayne Simmonds; Kirill Semyonov in the center of Michael Bunting and Josh Ho-Sang; David Kampf between Alex Kerfoot and Kase; and Mike Amadio in the center of Nick Robertson and Spezza. Keefe said some of those players will likely play against Montreal on Tuesday as well, and cautioned against over reading line combinations… In the second group, Ilya Mikheyev was on the left side with captain John Tavares and William Nylander. It would be conceivable to see this trio together on opening night… Expect the Leafs to narrow down to one manageable squad on Wednesday. Of the? “We will not make decisions about our final roster until we absolutely have to before we start on the 13th,” Keefe said.

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