The Toronto Maple Leafs are certainly helping themselves in the NHL playoff race.
They beat back a long-standing hex Monday night to take a 4-2 win from the Buffalo Sabres that gave the Leafs a sweep of their three-game road trip that started last Thursday in Nashville. The win also put the Leafs back into second place in the Atlantic Division over the idle Boston Bruins and fully in control of their playoff destiny.
If the Maple Leafs win by any means Tuesday night when they finish off their back-to-back set against the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning lose in regulation time, the Leafs will clinch a playoff spot. The only trouble for the Leafs is that they face a brutal finishing stretch to the regular season, all with difficult opponents. It's the Capitals on Tuesday, the Lightning on Thursday and another back-to-back set on the weekend against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.
"This week is going to be huge for us. It's a tough week," said Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who turned in another solid effort against the Sabres. "We knew on this road trip we could get some points and, obviously, the more the better [and] the less we have to force ourselves to get in the last homestand. We want to keep playing well and keep winning."
No one is driving the Leafs to keep winning more than star rookie Auston Matthews. He was a key figure in a quick and merciless start by the Leafs against the Sabres and another slew of records followed. Matthews scored his 39th goal of the season just 32 seconds after Leo Komarov opened the scoring at 4:26. James van Riemsdyk finished off Sabres starting goaltender Robin Lehner with a goal at 5:09.
First, the Matthews goal established a new record for most points by a Leafs rookie in one season at 67. It was also a new NHL record for most goals by a U.S.-born rookie at 39, breaking the one set by Neal Broten in 1981-82. Finally, with a goal in five consecutive games, Matthews tied a Leafs record for longest goal streak by a rookie. Gaye Stewart did it first in January, 1940.
Oh, and the whole works of them almost set another record with the three goals in 43 seconds. But the record of 39 second, also accomplished in January, 1940, survived.
"It's great. I played with some pretty good players, so I give credit to them," Matthews said. "I think the most important part is the team. We're getting better and better each segment."
The Sabres collapsed in the first period and only resurfaced sporadically, the last time when Jack Eichel scored with 55 seconds left in the third period. Any chance that Alexander Nylander, who was drafted eighth overall by the Sabres in 2016, would have a fun NHL debut against his older brother William, disappeared before the first period was six minutes old.
Still, William, who met his brother for a hug and a chat in the arena corridor after the game, thought it was fun catching Alexander's first NHL game. He admitted to keeping an eye on him.
"Yeah, of course," William said. "When you're on the bench you're watching every time he's out there. I probably had the best seats in the house to watch him play in his first game so it was pretty cool."
This group of Maple Leafs certainly has an I'll-Show-You attitude. Tell them they can't protect third-period leads and all of a sudden they're locking down games. Tell them the Maple Leafs have a dismal 69-26-8 record in Buffalo since the Sabres joined the NHL in 1970 and it's "Oh yeah?"
Just this past March 25, the Leafs were soundly spanked in Buffalo by a 5-2 margin, spoiling a stretch of good hockey that started two weeks earlier. Even though the Leafs resumed smacking their opponents around after that loss, registering just two regulation losses in their last 14 games, trepidation remained about this game because the Leafs' futility here is historic.
But it was not long before these Leafs once again emphasized they are a different animal than almost every Leafs team that came before them. They swarmed the listless Sabres early and often. Once Matthews had his rookie records and van Riemsdyk added his goal, Lehner had skated from his crease and went straight to the dressing room with Anders Nilsson taking over.
The problem is, the young Leafs are still trying to master the whole take-control-and-stay-in-control thing. Sabres forward Marcus Foligno showed his unhappiness with how the first period went by cross-checking a Leaf at the buzzer and started the second period with a cross-checking penalty.
But the Leafs came out drowsy in the second period. Especially defenceman Jake Gardiner, who figured he could float too far up the ice on the power play and still get back in time to cover Sabres centre Ryan O'Reilly. Wrong. O'Reilly easily outpaced Gardiner on a rush and put a nice shot over Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen's shoulder.
While the rest of the game remained a touch nasty, the Leafs managed to stay in control. The final blow came at 5:50 of the third period when Kadri scored a power-play goal. The nastiness flared up again when Kadri decided to yap at Sabres defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen, who had objected to some hacking at goaltender Anders Nilsson. This set off a scrum and saw a series of penalties issued.