Maple Leafs finally dazzle with jaw-dropping skill in win over Sabres

Auston Matthews scored two goals to lead the Toronto Maple Leafs over the Buffalo Sabres 5-3.

TORONTO — That’s a little more like it.

This incarnation of the Toronto Maple Leafs is built to be a glamour team, with multiple eight-figure paycheques and jaw-dropping skill splashed across every forward line and defensive pair.

It took until a Tuesday in mid-December for the beautiful game to finally grace Scotiabank Arena — at least for 30 tantalizing minutes or so. What became a 5-3 victory over the Buffalo Sabres was not notable because of the final result, or the fact the visitors mounted a late push, but how Sheldon Keefe’s squad unleashed the fury.

That looked like real progress under a new head coach who has built an 8-4-0 record since replacing Mike Babcock.

"I’d say that’s pretty ideal," said Auston Matthews. "I thought we had a good middle presence in the offensive zone. We had guys rolling around — whether it was a forward or a ‘D’ — and we were getting really good looks and really good opportunities."

"It’s a lot of fun, too," added Tyson Barrie. "I think it suits our team well."

This group was brought together on a belief that you can out-skill opponents. That if you compile as much talent as possible and maximize the amount of time you spend handling the puck you’re going to find success.

Only that hasn’t yet been the case for a Leafs team that actually has more total losses (18) than victories (17) almost halfway through the season, which explains in part how Keefe wound up with his first NHL head coaching gig last month.

He’s encouraging his offensively minded players to trust their instincts. He must have loved seeing Barrie and Morgan Rielly get so active in the offensive zone against the Sabres that the distinction between "defenceman" and "forward" basically disappeared.

"He’s actually 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 of Keefe. "I haven’t had that often from a coach."

No one knows for sure if it’ll work.

The Leafs still haven’t done it for something approximating an entire night — although they basically pushed Tuesday’s visit by Buffalo out of reach by building a 3-0 lead before the second intermission.

There were two highlight-reel goals from Matthews — both tucked up under the bar — and long stretches of O-zone control. Mitch Marner danced through defenders, John Tavares hunted pucks, Barrie jumped into the play and generated six shots, and even fourth-line centre Frederik Gauthier put a gorgeous finish on a Sabres turnover to open the scoring.

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The Sabres boast their own elite talent — Jack Eichel stretched his league-best points streak to 17 games with a goal and an assist — but Toronto’s depth was too much to handle.

At least until the third period when Buffalo roared back to life and made this a game. There’s no way to completely gloss over the late speed wobble from the Leafs perspective, but they believe it’s only a matter of time before those disappear, too.

"We’re showing where the next phase is for us as a team," said Keefe. "There’s a lot of areas there we’ve got to be a little more purposeful and a little more intelligent with what we do with the puck. I think we have real potential to really control the game in those periods of time, but we’re not there yet."

The Leafs have played nine of 12 games under the new coach away from home and still outscored their opposition 16-3 in the first period since he was hired. They’ve consistently built leads and exerted their will.

Keefe is unafraid to let his horses run, mixing and matching lines in an effort to load up at key moments. Against Buffalo, he saw Matthews jump on the ice with Marner and Tavares moments before scoring his first goal.

His second goal — No. 21 on the season — will play on loop during "Sportsnet Central."

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First William Nylander stretched to keep the play onside at Buffalo’s blue line and then Matthews took a pass as the late man on the rush. He beat a reaching Conor Sheary, deked around Linus Ullmark and lifted the puck over both the Sabres goalie and defenceman Rasmus Dahlin, who dropped into the butterfly in the crease behind him.

"The goals were elite and that’s what you come to expect when he has those opportunities like that — the finish — and he made no mistake and that really put us in a position to win the game," Keefe said of Matthews. "So he did his job."

It was pretty damn entertaining, all around.

This looked like the Leafs team everyone was expecting. Far from perfect, yes, but with enough offensive weapons to damage the team at the other end of the ice.

"I think it just 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," said Keefe.

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