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Maple Leafs adjust on fly after Matthews has positive rapid COVID test

TORONTO — The day after Auston Matthews was named the NHL’s first star of December, he missed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first practice of January.

Matthews and assistant coach Dean Chynoweth stayed clear from the rink Monday after submitting positive rapid COVID-19 tests in the morning.

Both are asymptomatic and awaiting the results of their PCR tests, which won’t be available until Tuesday morning.

“There have been some instances where those rapid positives have been false. So that’s why at this point it’s just precautionary that they were removed for today. We’ll wait confirmation [Tuesday] morning,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said.

“It’s been more my reality in the NHL than has been normal. We were ready for practice here today and had a plan in place, and then when we were told Auston wasn’t going to be available, we had to adjust quickly. And you move on.”

The Leafs did welcome back defenceman Timothy Liljegren from protocol when they hit the ice for the first time since routing the Ottawa Senators 6-0 on Saturday.

The Senators have been ravaged by positive tests, and three more players — Thomas Chabot, Zach Sanford, and Chris Tierney — were placed in protocol Monday morning.

All three skated against the Maple Leafs on Saturday.

Matthews, 24, found the scoresheet in all seven of his December appearances, averaging two points per game. The reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner has scorched his way up the goal-scoring race and now ranks third with 20 goals.

Matthews previously contracted COVID in June of 2020 but was not touched by the rash of Omicron that ran through Toronto’s roster last month.

“We’ve been fortunate to this point that anybody who has been positive has gotten through it with relatively mild symptoms. And we saw the other night that our guys have recovered well,” Keefe said.

“It’s just become part of our reality that we have to deal with.”

If Matthews must serve a five-day quarantine but remains asymptomatic, he might only miss Wednesday’s tilt versus the Edmonton Oilers. The Leafs already have seen games Monday (Carolina) and Thursday (Montreal) postponed.

Captain John Tavares moved up the lineup between Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting on the top line Monday, while Alexander Kerfoot centred William Nylander and Ilya Mikheyev on the second unit.

“I didn’t give it a great deal of thought. I really just kind of defaulted to some of the things that we had done last season and we played without Auston,” Keefe explained of his quick adjustment. “Bringing Kerfoot back into the middle keeps [third-line centre David] Kämpf and [fourth-line centre Jason] Spezza solid in their spots.

“Kerfoot has shown the ability to play centre and do a good job for us throughout the season. It keeps him and Willy together, and I think those guys have done a good job.”

Added Kerfoot, seemingly speaking for the entire province: “We want to move past this as quick as we can, but COVID obviously is still lingering around.”

One-Timers: Liljegren returned to practice Monday after serving his quarantine. He did his best to stay in shape through stretching and yoga. “I’m asymptomatic, so didn’t have any symptoms at all,” he says. “It sucks. After we went back to the ice after that little break, I thought I was in the clear.” Good news is, Liljegren only had to serve a five-day quarantine and only missed one game…. Jake Muzzin says he has “no effects” of the virus and should be ready to go Wednesday versus Edmonton…. Jack Campbell, who pitched his fourth shutout Saturday, will start against the Oilers. “For right now, we think there’s opportunity here for Jack to just run with it,” Keefe says.

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