BUFFALO – Auston Matthews led the Maple Leafs to their fifth straight victory on Tuesday, scoring twice in a 4-3 overtime decision against the rival Buffalo Sabres. The 21-year-old winger scored the Leafs’ first and last goals, burying the overtime winner with 2.7 seconds left on the clock. Toronto moves to 20-8-0 on the season with the win, and slide up to second place overall in the NHL standings.
Auston continues to awe
About 20 seconds before Matthews scored the Leafs’ overtime winner, he probably should have gone off for a change. Instead, he stayed on the ice, exploiting his matchup in the 3-on-3 setting and rifled a perfectly-placed shot high on Linus Ullmark with 2.7 seconds remaining in the extra frame.
It was not only Matthews’ fifth goal in three games since returning from a shoulder injury last Wednesday, or his 15th goal in 14 games this season, but it was also his second awe-inspiring goal of the game. The first came in the second period, when he snatched a deflected shot by Ron Hainsey out of the air, planted it on the ice and scored a wraparound goal on Ullmark before anyone else on the ice realized he was in control of the puck.
The play encouraged a round of “Aus-ton Matth-ews” chants from the Leafs-friendly crowd at Keybank Centre, in the same building where Matthews was drafted first overall by Toronto in 2016. After the game, Matthews admitted he was “so tired” on the overtime winner after not taking advantage of an opportunity to change earlier, and that his conditioning still isn’t where he wants it to be after that 14-game layoff recovering from injury.
But while there still may be some work to do to get his skating back to where it was, Matthews’ playmaking and scoring ability haven’t taken a hit and that’s what has helped drive the Leafs since his return. He finished with two goals, one assist and a plus-3 rating, his second multi-point game in his last three outings.
In a wider context, Matthews became the second NHL player since 1996-97 to score 15 or more goals within his first 14 games of the season (Sam Gagner had 15).
The Leafs and Sabres don’t have a long history of playoff meetings – that’s only happened once, in 1999 – but being divisional rivals in close geographical proximity has still nurtured plenty of drama over the years. Even with the Sabres in an eight-year postseason drought, they’ve continued to play the Leafs tough, especially at home. Going into Tuesday’s game, the Sabres owned a 15-5 record over Toronto in their building, and until the waning seconds of overtime it looked entirely possible they’d add another win to the pile.
Despite having played the night before and traveling back from Nashville, Buffalo looked like the more rested squad early against Toronto, and were outskating the Leafs early on. After a goalless first period, Matthews broke through first, but Sam Reinhart tipped home an equalizer six minutes later to keep the Leafs on their toes.
With 9.6 seconds left in that middle frame, Mitch Marner and John Tavares had a pair of terrific assists teeing up a tap-in for the hard-charging Jake Gardiner on Ullmark’s doorstep to put the Leafs back up, 2-1.
By late in the third, Toronto had gone from in control to into a hole, courtesy of two slick goals from Sabres captain Jack Eichel (the second go-ahead goal facilitated by Nazem Kadri’s egregious turnover at the blueline). It took a shortside strike with less than four minutes left from Patrick Marleau to tie the contest 3-3 and put the Leafs into overtime.
Reaching extra time, the Sabres rolled around the Leafs’ end with ease and frustrated their offensive stars, until Kapanen and Matthews took off in the dying seconds of overtime to connect on the winner.
From the electric fans to the electrifying play by young stars on both stars, the Leafs and Sabres look to have re-ignited their rivalry in a big way.
Andersen stays hot
For all the good Matthews did for Toronto on the scoresheet, goaltender Frederik Andersen led the way through a dicey first period and set up opportunity for success down the stretch.
The Sabres controlled play in the opening frame at 54 per cent possession overall, and were outshooting the Leafs 13-3 just past the halfway mark of the first period. Andersen held Buffalo at bay when the Leafs’ defensive structure broke down, including on a particularly potent chance by Rasmus Ristolainen after he danced through the Leafs’ defenders.
Andersen was impenetrable until six minutes remained in the second period, and Reinhart tipped defenceman Nathan Beaulieu’s snap shot over his blocker to tie the game 1-1. The play started off a lost defensive zone draw, a recurring issue for the Leafs that cost them a goal.
After being stymied by Andersen earlier, Ristolainen eventually got to the goalie, sending a hard shot from the point for Eichel to bury from the right circle and tie the game 2-2 in the second. When Eichel’s second goal went in, Andersen re-set and stayed poised through a frantic end to the third and into overtime.
Making 38 saves on 41 shots, it was the third straight game Andersen has seen that number of pucks and fourth straight outing he’s seen 40 or more. His 16 wins currently lead the NHL.
Marner on point(s)
There was only 9.6 seconds on the clock in the second period when Gardiner saw something brewing between Marner and Tavares. Marner was streaking towards the top of the circle and sent a hard pass right to Tavares down low. Hoping there was a trailer behind him, Tavares flipped the puck behind him to a hard-charging Gardiner, who had ID’d the play and put himself in position to send the pass right over top of Ullmark to give Toronto a 2-1 go-ahead goal.
That play was manufactured by Marner’s speed and vision, and produced the third-year winger’s 33rd assist of the season and 11th helper in his last five games. It’s been quite a run for one of the Leafs’ top playmakers, who continues to find new ways to stay on top of opponents who fully expect he’ll make a pass rather than use his shot. Indeed, there were occasions on Tuesday when Marner seemed to forgo open shooting lanes to defer to a teammate, but so far the results of his work are coming up in the Leafs’ favour. He finished the game plus-1, with two shots on goal.
Blue and White Trending
Tracking Leafs’ trends all season long
The Leafs are now 13-0-0 on the season when scoring first, and are the only team in the NHL to not lose a game in overtime or a shootout (4-0-0) so far in 2018-19.
Toronto heads back home for a Thursday meeting with the Red Wings.
“Oh, he’ll practice. I hope he plays. Enough’s enough here, let’s get ’er going.”
- Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, on whether William Nylander will resume practising with the Leafs on Wednesday after signing a six-year contract extension on Saturday and re-joining the club.