The Toronto Maple Leafs appeared headed toward a comfortable win after building a three-goal advantage inside maybe their most impressive first 40 minutes to date under new head coach Sheldon Keefe, but in the end wound up having to gut out a 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres after another disorganized effort when protecting a lead.
While it wasn’t the statement win it had the potential to be, it remains a crucial victory nonetheless. With it, the Leafs moved back into a postseason position and elevated to within a point of their divisional and territorial rival from just across the border.
Ah, the importance of the proverbial four-point contest.
Striking a balance between the aggressive tactics now being encouraged and the tried-and-true methods when playing with a lead exists as the next phase in the evolution under Keefe. And they will have a couple days to discuss that nuance before the potential return of Michael Hutchinson this weekend, as a back-to-back versus the New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings is next on the schedule.
Until then, four points.
It seemed like the perfect time for Auston Matthews to serve a reminder.
With Jack Eichel kicking up some serious Hart Trophy buzz — as Matthews’ game was beginning to sag — talk radio was rife in the lead-up to the contest with debate over which American superstar should be considered the preferred choice to build a franchise around.
Riding a 16-game point streak into the matchup while dragging his comparatively inferior team into postseason seeding, Eichel was successful in converting some beginning to sour on Matthews and his abilities to repeatedly drive performance.
They might be second-guessing that second-guessing, now.
While Eichel pushed his streak to 17 games (and scored a golazo himself), it was Matthews that shone brighter among the superstars in Toronto and continued to torture the Sabres, scoring twice in the contest.
AUSTON MATTHEWS WHAT IN THE WORLD pic.twitter.com/ib0YwgS516— Flintor (@TheFlintor) December 18, 2019
That show-stopping tally put Matthews back on track to hit 50 goals for the first time in his career. But more importantly, the overall performance versus the Sabres put him back on track under the guidance of Keefe — even if there was a costly defensive lapse before time was up. We saw Matthews’ minutes dip last time out versus the Edmonton Oilers, a decision symptomatic of some surprising regression seeping into his total effort.
While many expected the sniper to be unleashed under the new coaching staff, his influence from an offensive perspective had began to atrophy, and in some ways pale in comparison to what he was providing for Babcock. Ice time was up, but shots, shot quality and overall production have all been down for Matthews since the switch, and especially since Andreas Johnsson exited the lineup.
Though he will need to string together some strong performances to match the influence he was having at times earlier in the season, the production piece is well on its way for Matthews. He now has seven goals and nine points in 12 games with Keefe in charge, thanks to the outburst against Buffalo.
What Keefe believed was possible with Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie together on the ice consistently played out for everyone to see versus the Sabres.
The uniquely-weaponized No. 1 pair in Toronto was unbelievably dynamic in the first period Tuesday night, and played its best brand of defence through sustained and menacing moments in the offensive zone.
Probably the best period for the Barrie-Rielly pairing, and the numbers certainly bear that out. Expected goals at 91.1 and 88.7, respectively at @NatStatTrick. Downhill.— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) December 18, 2019
While it puts immense pressure on the Maple Leafs forwards when both Rielly and Barrie are shooting up the side walls when the Leafs have possession, it cannot compare to the stress it has to put on an opposing defensive-zone structure.
It’s hard enough to track which Leaf is which from a bird’s-eye view in the press box, let alone at 100 MPH on the ice.
Keep an eye on Rielly. Or try to, at least.
Barrie suggested after the game that the encouragement he’s received from an attacking standpoint is unlike most instruction he’s been given from a coach.
The little things
Deservedly, Matthews will receive the bulk of the credit for his role in, you know, scoring two beautiful goals. But on each, though, there were little plays that facilitated his opportunity to show off that wicked release.
With his first, check out the touch from Zach Hyman that sends the Maple Leafs away in transition.
And before the second (which is worth embedding twice in this post), notice William Nylander pushing the puck forward to help Rielly stay onside.
Digging themselves out
The 8-4 record the Leafs have managed since Keefe took over Nov. 20 has provided the most important ground that the Maple Leafs have made up, but there is one deficit he’s dealt with more efficiently.
After being outscored by 12 goals in the first period in 23 games with Babcock in charge, the Leafs — rather incredibly — now hold an edge over opponents in opening-period scoring with 16 goals for to just three against under Keefe.
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