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The art of the steal is just as impressive.

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As much as John Tavares is awed by Auston Matthews’ ability to score goals, the Maple Leafs captain continues to be impressed by Matthews’ defensive talents and skill at taking the puck from opponents.

“I’ve always marveled, even in his first couple years in the league — his ability to strip pucks is uncanny,” Tavares said. “It’s a talent that you can’t really teach. The instincts to execute that and turn it into offense so quickly… he’s always reading the play from the right side of it defensively, then his ability to strip guys and use his body from him to take pucks away and transition to offense is pretty remarkable. ”

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Matthews consistently passes the eye test when it comes to getting the puck back, and the numbers back it up.

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Prior to games on Tuesday, Matthews led National Hockey League forwards with 89 takeaways. Only one player — defenseman Alex Pietrangelo of the Vegas Golden Knights with 90 — had more.

Second among forwards was Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers with 72, two more than teammate Leon Draisaitl and the Leafs’ Mitch Marner.

“Everyone has seen the continued evolution and the physical nature of his game,” Tavares said of Matthews. “Just like it is for him in getting his shot off and using his release and how elite that is, it’s the same sort of thing with stripping a guy and knowing when the puck is going to be exposed, when he’s most vulnerable, and how to disguise it because guys know it’s coming.”

As for Matthews’ knack for putting the puck in the net? The Leafs don’t take it for granted.

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“When we talk amongst amongst ourselves in the group, we know we have a pretty special player that we’re playing with,” Tavares said. “We shake our heads sometimes on the bench when you see some of those go in and how he’s doing it. It’s fun for the group to see him do what he has been doing and make some history with some of the milestones he has hit.”

REST VS. WORK

Tavares had an honest answer about not playing in Washington against the Capitals on Sunday.

Did he appreciate getting a night off for load management purposes?

“Yes and no,” Tavares said. “As a competitor, you want to play. I try to take a lot of pride in the 82-game grind but waking up (Tuesday), having a couple of days off the ice, physically you feel a little better.

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“It’s a balance, so there’s definitely good things to it. You want to be out there competing, but you take advantage of the opportunity and it made a lot of sense when (Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe) approached me about it.”

Naturally, Tavares was stoked to watch his teammates rally in the third period against the Caps, erasing a two-goal deficit in the final eight minutes and eventually winning 4-3 in a shootout.

“It was fantastic,” Tavares said. “Whatever happens, whatever the circumstances are, there is a lot of belief in the group.

“It was a tough trip, so it was a big two points and there was a great morale afterward.”

BUNTING BOUNCE

Michael Bunting skated on Tuesday morning, an indication that the injury he suffered against Florida on Saturday is not serious.

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Bunting didn’t play against the Detroit Red Wings and won’t be in the lineup against the Boston Bruins on Friday in the regular-season finale, though Keefe sounded optimistic.

“He’s not going to play this week, and we’ll reevaluate him from there, but things are looking positive,” Keefe said.

Despite his late-season absence, Bunting seemed to be in a good position to finish atop NHL rookies in scoring.

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Through games on Monday, Bunting’s 63 points had him with a four-point lead over Trevor Zegras of the Anaheim Ducks, who was second with 59.

Detroit’s Lucas Raymond was third with 56.

LOOSE LEAFS

Of the Leafs’ other injured players, defenseman Rasmus Sandin, who has been out since March 19 with a knee injury, is the closest to being able to return. The expectation is that Sandin will join the Leafs for practice this week. Winger Ondrej Kase (concussion) took part in the morning skate, but there is no timeline for his return from him. Goalie Petr Mrazek (groin) has been skating and is progressing well, but there is no target date for his return either … Keefe on his players’ individual accomplishments, specifically those who have set personal highs in points: “The playoffs are going to start , everybody’s going to go back to zero. You want your players feeling good and feeling confident and to that end, we’ve had guys having career years offensively and defensively, whatever it might be. Our guys have lots of reasons to be positive going into the playoffs.” … The Leafs have won the previous two meetings against the Bruins in 2021-22 and have outscored Boston 11-6 … Just two teams — the Arizona Coyotes and the Vancouver Canucks — were not beaten by the Leafs this season. Neither club will be in the playoffs … Defenseman Carl Dahlstrom was returned to the Toronto Marlies.

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