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Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Matthews hits 10-game drought

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) shoots the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period at the PPG Paints Arena. Pittsburgh won 4-1.

Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

One Toronto Maple Leafs rookie quietly put an end to a lengthy goal drought on Tuesday night, but it was not Auston Matthews.

William Nylander, lingering in Matthews's shadow all season, scored the Leafs' sixth and final goal in a 6-2 win over the Nashville Predators. It was the first goal for the 20 year old since Oct. 25, a dry spell of nine games that was actually equal to Matthews's in length, even if it wasn't getting as much attention.

"Of course, it's nice being able to be on the side a little bit," Nylander said with a grin, referring to all the extra attention and pressure Matthews faces.

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Matthews had a team-high five shots in Toronto's sixth win in eight tries at home, but he failed to score for the 10th consecutive game. The 19-year-old, who has only two assists during the offensive slowdown, was relatively quiet in almost 18 minutes against the Predators. He did muster a pair of quality chances against fill-in goaltender Marek Mazanec, including an attempt from the top of the face-off circle in the second period which sailed through traffic and nearly found the back of the net.

His most recent goal came on Oct. 25 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto's final goal in a 7-3 loss. He has only two goals in 15 games since his historic four-goal NHL debut, a cooling off period that's not been without chances. Of the two, Nylander had actually been far quieter and yet he was the one to end the goal drought first.

"When you don't score for a longer period of time it maybe gets in your mind a little bit," Nylander said.

Matthews is admittedly facing some of that right now.

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock has professed utmost confidence in the Arizona native though, noting the difficulties of handling centre-ice duties as a first-year player. Babcock has employed video of Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg as a means of helping Matthews along.

"Sometimes the bounces don't go your way in these little droughts and that stuff's going to happen in a long season," Matthews said on Tuesday morning.

It's worth noting that Matthews is already almost halfway to the total number of games he suited up for in Zurich last season, 36.

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The Leafs, too, are still badly out-chancing the opposition when he's on the ice, while puck-possession indicators remain strong despite the lacking production. Matthews believes he's grown stronger defensively in recent weeks and he continues to fire plenty of shots, leading Toronto with 63 in 16 games.

Only three players in hockey – Brent Burns, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jakub Voracek – have fired more shots on goal so far this season.

Babcock has observed subtle adjustments from Matthews over the past couple weeks, including notable improvements in the faceoff circle. Matthews went 43 per cent on the draw in the opening five games, 53 per cent in the following five and 61 per cent in the five outings preceding Tuesday's tilt, when he was 5 for 13.

That was an indicator of rapid adjustment from a player who was just getting his bearings in hockey's most competitive league.

"What he's telling you already is he likes having the puck," Babcock said. "He's sick and tired of chasing it already. So then the next thing he's going to figure out if he stops in the right places on defence and puts his stick in the right place, the offensive players are going to keep giving it back to him and then his skill-set is going to come out.

"But the hardest part for a kid when you come in the National Hockey League is you never get the puck."

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That's where the video has come in handy.

In one-on-one sessions Babcock showed Matthews how Zetterberg, the long-time Red Wing, got the puck back just by standing in the right places defensively. He showed Matthews how when Crosby got the puck, he lured the defence out of position and then didn't hesitate to make a play.

Babcock said the Leafs needed Matthews to become a "dominant, dominant centre" and expressed confidence that that would happen by Christmas time.

"We think he's a very good player already," Babcock said. "But we think he can be lights out both with and without the puck."

Potting his first hat trick as a Leaf against Nashville while also ending an eight-game goal drought himself, James van Riemsdyk offered his model for breaking free of offensive dry spells. The veteran has learned that the best way to get through such spots is to maintain a consistent approach every game and know that eventually the tide would even out.

Van Riemsdyk gained that wisdom during his early years in Philadelphia, absorbing it from Flyers veterans such as Daniel Briere and Chris Pronger. It's perhaps advice he can and may have already passed on to Matthews.

"If you believe in your approach and believe in what you're doing out there," van Riemsdyk said, "usually it turns for you."

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