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Matthews leads Leafs vs. Coyotes in return to Phoenix

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When Auston Matthews returned to Phoenix a year ago, it marked the triumphant return of a hockey prodigy.

Matthews and his Toronto Maple Leafs are back in the Valley of the Sun on Thursday to face the Arizona Coyotes, but his road this season has been decidedly different than last year.

Matthews scored 40 goals and 69 points a year ago, playing in all 82 of the Leafs' games. But he already has missed 10 games this season, first with a probable back injury and most recently with concussion symptoms.

The difference he makes was readily apparent Saturday night when he notched a goal and an assist as the Leafs snapped a four-game road losing streak with a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers. Despite the limited playing time, he still has 14 goals and 14 assists in 27 games.

"I feel good," said Matthews, who spent the Leafs' time off eating his mother's cooking in Scottsdale. "I don't think it (the concussion) is really something you talk about every day but I feel good and back to normal. It's in the past now."

Toronto, which sits second behind Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division at 22-14-1, has spent much of the month of December on the road, playing seven of 10 games away from the Air Canada Centre.

"We've got a good run here on the road with lots of games and you'd like the home and the road games to be spread out and balanced but that's not the way it is," Babcock said. "We haven't been as consistent as we'd like but I think we've got a good hockey club and a club that's going in the right direction so that's positive."

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet can empathize with Babcock's feelings about fielding a young team, but for Arizona the results have been decidedly mixed.

Arizona endured a seven-game losing streak encompassing the first three weeks of the month, but have won two of their past three, including a 3-1 road victory over Colorado five days after being routed by the Avalanche 6-2 at home.

"Tracking was a big thing for us," said forward Lawson Crouse, who scored in his first game since being recalled from Tucson of the American Hockey League on Wednesday. "It shows than when we track well we limit their offensive abilities and that was the case."

Goaltender Antii Raanta, who was pulled late in the second period on Saturday after giving up three goals in 19 shots, made 25 saves against the Avalanche. He made 13 of those in the third period, including a glove save on a Nathan MacKinnon breakaway and another stop on a three-on-one Colorado breakout.

"If we keep on playing like this," Raanta said in the locker room after the game, "we're a pretty tough team to play."

The Coyotes will be looking for their first win of the season in the second of back-to-back games, having posted an 0-5-1 mark thus far.

Arizona will be without forward Zac Rinaldo, who will serving the second game of a six-game suspension for his role in a melee Saturday night against the Avalanche.

Updated December 28, 2017

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