‘He stood up for himself’

TORONTO — Nick Robertson may be the youngest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but he’s wise enough to glean a positive from Auston Matthews’ two-game suspension.

“He’s probably the best player in the league, and he stood up for himself. I think it’s rare, when you see a guy with his talent go back at a guy,” said Robertson, who slides back into the top six with Matthews out.

“Obviously, we don’t want a suspension. But for a guy to show that passion, to kind of relate a little bit, it’s kind of nice.”

Nice for those fans who cringed when they saw a chuckling Matthews allow himself to get rag-dolled by Ben Chiarot during last year’s playoffs. Nice for opponents to realize they may get a sharp burst of fiberglass if they tangle with the six-foot-three, 205-pound superstar.

“Nice for us,” Robertson continues. “You can’t rely on other guys to stick up for any players. It’s nice for him to take ownership of it himself.”

Uncharacteristic of the two-time Lady Byng finalist, Matthews reached a boiling point late in Sunday’s 5-2 outdoor loss to the lowly Buffalo Sabers. A net-front positional battle with defenseman (and fellow first-overall draft pick) Rasmus Dahlin escalated and culminated with Matthews delivering a forceful cross-check directly to Dahlin’s neck.

“We’re disappointed. We don’t want him to miss any games or think he should. But we’re going to move forward,” said captain John Tavares. “There’s no intent from his end. He’s just competing hard, and just something unfortunate happened.

Tavares calls Matthews “arguably the best player in the league.” With that comes extra attention.

“Guys are gonna try to be physical with them, try to push his buttons,” Tavares said. “He’s extremely strong. He’s obviously big, and he can use that as a way to get pissed off or whatnot. But I think just to stand his ground and show that he’s not going to get pushed around or let anyone try to get him off his game…. He has a good sense of when and how to use the physical nature of his game and his frame, and he’s done a tremendous job with that all year.”

Despite Matthews’ scoring at nearly a goal-a-game pace for the past 39 games, his team can’t buy a save, nor draw a penalty.

Oddly, Matthews, who dominates the puck, is tied for 310th leaguewide in penalties drawn this season, with eight.

“I think you scratch your head,” said Tavares, regarding that stat.

“I give him so much credit because you would never know that with the way he carries himself and how he handles it. I think he just looks at that next opportunity and wants to go out there and be dominant, carry play and continue to find a way to make a difference and overcome whatever he’s facing.”

On Sunday, the Leafs were losing another game to a lottery-bound team. He washed out. Maybe he was aiming for Dahlin’s shoulder. Certainly, he missed high and was punished appropriately for a non-hockey play.

Matthews downplayed the incident postgame, no doubt hoping he’d skirt suspension in light of his previously clean record and Dahlin surviving the blow uninjured.

“I think t goes without saying. Anyone who follows the Leafs or Auston, you know the type of player he is. He doesn’t take very many penalties. He deals with a lot. So, it’s obviously out of character in this situation,” coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“The league makes their decision, and we move on from it.”

How they’ll move on Tuesday is by bumping Tavares to top-line duties between red-hot wingers Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting, and giving Alexander Kerfoot a look between Robertson and William Nylander.

“I know any time we’ve played without Auston and John’s been in his spot, he’s been terrific for us,” Keefe said.

“So I would expect nothing less tonight.”

One-Timers: Erik Källgren will make his first-ever NHL start for the Maple Leafs Tuesday. The 25-year-old Swedish import posted a .909 save percentage in 30 minutes of relief work Thursday, helping the Leafs earn a loser point in their overtime defeat to the Coyotes…. Jake Oettinger starts for Dallas…. Scratched for the Heritage Classic, Nick Robertson jumps back onto Toronto’s second line Tuesday for a showdown against older brother Jason, who leads Dallas with 30 goals…. Significant step in the progress of Jake Muzzin, who participated in his first team practice Tuesday morning since sustaining his second concussion of the year on Feb. 21. He could be eligible to play as early as Saturday in Nashville.… Justin Holl is wearing a full face shield after needing some repairs Sunday…. Ilya Lyubushkin will start his first game on the top pair alongside Morgan Rielly… Wayne Simmonds and Travis Dermott will be healthy scratches, as fourth-liner Kyle Clifford draws in for his first action since signing a two-year extension.

Maple Leafs projected lineup Tuesday:

Bunting-Tavares-Marner

Robertson-Kerfoot-Nylander

Mikheyev-Kampf-Engvall

Clifford-Spezza-Kase

Rielly Lyubushkin

Brodie Holl

Sandin-Liljegren

Kallgren

Mrazek

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