As they continue to iron out the kinks with Sheldon Keefe as coach, the Maple Leafs also continue to rack up the victories.
It’s now eight wins in 12 games since the refreshing Keefe took over from the spent Mike Babcock, the latest a 5-3 triumph against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.
The win featured two goals by Auston Matthews — giving him 21 in 35 games and putting him on pace for 49 — a dominating start by the Leafs and some nail-biting in the third period as the Sabres rallied to close the lead to one goal before Ilya Mikheyev scored into an empty net.
“I think it speaks to the potential of the team because we’re still nowhere near what I think we can look like and what we’re capable of, but we’re doing a lot of good things,” Keefe said of finding success while adapting to new systems.
“The penalty kill lets one in, but we get a huge kill late in the game. Special teams have been better. The power play had some looks and had some chances.
“Playing with the lead, getting the lead — a lot of good, positive things we’ve seen. Yet, I still think there’s a long way for the team to go and continue to grow.”
Matthews scored what Keefe referred to as a couple of “elite” goals and he won’t get any argument here.
As he is bound to do many times, Matthews etched his name in the team record book, becoming just the second player in franchise history to score at least 20 goals in each of his first four seasons, joining Dave Keon, who had at least 20 in each of his first six seasons with Toronto from 1960-66.
Matthews, who played a season-low 14 minutes 34 seconds in the Leafs win in Edmonton on Saturday, beat Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark at 4:47 of the second, picking the top corner after taking pass from Morgan Rielly.
At 17:39, Matthews made like a star in a peewee tournament, deking his way to his 21st goal and saving his last move to beat a sprawling Ullmark with a backhand.
“It’s a pretty big honour to be in the same breath as that guy,” Matthews said, referring to Keon. “His career and what he did here, it’s pretty unbelievable. Just to be mentioned in the same sentence is a huge privilege.”
Matthews has not scored three goals in a game since he had four in his NHL debut in October 2016 in Ottawa. Since then, and including Tuesday, he has had 24 two-goal games.
With the Leafs leading 3-0, Sabres defenceman Rasmus Dahlin scored on a point shot at 1:29 of the third with John Tavares serving a minor for holding the stick. Jack Eichel had an assist to extend his NHL-best point streak to 17 games … Dmytro Timashov, on a breakaway at 4:58 of the third thanks to a fine pass from Tyson Barrie, slipped the puck between Ullmark’s legs all alone … Eichel scored on a rocket over Frederik Andersen’s shoulder at 6:30, and Kyle Okposo scored at 14:41 to make the Leafs’ collars a little tighter than they needed to be … Some symmetry on Matthews’ first goal — Rielly drew his 20th assist and Mitch Marner also had his 20th assist … A late hit by Okposo on Travis Dermott in the third period should have resulted in, at least, a boarding minor. But no call from referees Peter McDougall and Marc Joannette … Frederik Gauthier opened the scoring early in the first when he fired the puck past Ullmark after Sabres defenceman Brandon Montour put it on Gauthier’s stick. Timashov, as he did in Edmonton when he set up Gauthier, got the play going when he carried the puck into the offensive zone. The goal was Gauthier’s fourth, a career-high … It was the fifth game in a row the Leafs took a 1-0 lead. That sentence might never have been written in the Babcock era … Under Keefe, the Leafs’ defencemen are urged to be more mobile and creative in the offensive zone, and that approach nearly resulted in a goal when Barrie and Rielly played keepaway before Barrie got a shot off. “He has showed clips where I’ll dive in and end up in front of the net and he’s like, ‘I love that, do more of that,’” Barrie said. “I have not had that often from a coach.” … Why is there a debate regarding Eichel and Matthews? Eichel is a year older, so he should be further along in his overall development. Picking one over the other is foolish. Both will have great careers. Neither team will be disappointed. Anyone who claims to have a definitive answer, right now, of one over the other is wrong … Forward Trevor Moore took a bump at practice on Monday and didn’t tell the club until early Tuesday afternoon that he was not 100%. Moore underwent concussion testing, which he passed, but was scratched. That necessitated the emergency recall of forward Adam Brooks from the Toronto Marlies. Wearing No. 77, Brooks was in the warmup, but was scratched as Timashov reclaimed the spot that Moore would have had on the fourth line. Moore had expected to return from a shoulder injury but instead missed his 14th game in a row. Keefe said the shoulder is no longer an issue.