Lightning rough up Auston Matthews in playoff-like preview (Video)

Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews has had the target on his back in Thursday’s clash with the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Getty)

As the linchpin, Auston Matthews’ durability has been a factor that simply cannot be understated for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team close to qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs after a last-place finish the season prior.

This is a teenager, mind you, who has hardly missed a shift in his first year in the NHL, where the contact is heavier, the calendar is cold-hearted and the likelihood of surviving the rigours of an 82-game schedule (which is more than twice the workload he’s had previously) without picking up a fairly significant knock is unlikely.

Some players are fortunate to have that sort of awareness, and Matthews seems to possess that instinctive ability to avoid vulnerable situations. But there are some nights when you cannot avoid the punishment routinely doled out to the game’s best.

That target was on Matthews’ back on Thursday night.

With a chance to punch their ticket and eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning in a trial run, albeit failed, for the Maple Leafs, Matthews also got a taste of the treatment stars often receive when the games take on heightened meaning, highlighted by a nasty knee-on-knee collision initiated by Jake Dotchin.

With Maple Leafs fans (most notably his parents) holding their breath, Matthews stayed down for a moment before arriving at the bench hunched over in what appeared to be significant discomfort, only to hop over the boards for his next shift.

It wasn’t long before the Lightning re-established the target.

Braydon Coburn was forced to exchange punches with Matt Martin for his abuse on Matthews.

Perhaps the Maple Leafs have shown mercy to Dotchin. Let’s face it, he’s had a tough week.