Maple Leafs’ high-flying success has core on path for career years

Auston Matthews and John Tavares both scored a pair of goals to help the Toronto Maple Leafs crush the Florida Panthers.

TORONTO — You arrive at Scotiabank Arena without last line change and it’s your job to figure out a plan of attack against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

When you look down the middle you find three centres who’ve already combined to score 51 goals. Before Christmas. There’s a winger on pace for more than 100 points and a defenceman trending towards 90-plus.

Oh, and a goaltender sporting a .924 save percentage — well above league average.

“You come into this game and you’re mismatched all over the place,” Florida Panthers coach Bob Boughner said after Thursday’s 6-1 whupping at the hands of the Maple Leafs.

Belief wasn’t an issue for the visitors, not after beating Toronto five nights earlier on home ice, but they saw a much different version of the Leafs this time around.

This was basically the team a Stanley Cup-starved fanbase started dreaming about on July 1, when John Tavares chose to come home and join forces with fellow centres Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri.

Each of those players found the back of the net on Thursday, just as they had in Tuesday’s 7-2 dismantling of the New Jersey Devils. You can line match all you want. As an inferior opponent, it’s going to be tough to find success when the spine of the Leafs is skating and producing like this.

“This is one of the best teams in the NHL,” said Boughner. “They did this to Jersey two nights ago. I think we need to play almost near perfect to beat these guys, and we were far from that tonight.”

Matthews scored twice to bring his season total to 19 goals in 21 games. He left veteran goalie Roberto Luongo waving meekly at the second one after somehow taking a bullet pass from Morgan Rielly on his off-wing and firing it in one motion, casually dropping his left knee to the ice in order to pull it off.

Slow it down and watch it again. We’re talking a high-, high-end offensive play.

“A lot of the time he makes it looks easy and this league definitely is not easy,” said Tavares.

“He’s able to hit it when the puck’s moving a bit quicker than most people are, just because of his strength and his release,” added Rielly. “That was obviously the case on his one timer. Very impressive. He’s rolling.”

The Leafs are now scoring 3.71 goals per game — good for second league-wide — and they’re second overall with a 23-10-2 record.

There are a lot of folks in this city who’ve watched a lot of hockey and never seen a team this good. At least not one occupying the home bench.

On Thursday, they overwhelmed the Panthers with the sheer volume of skill. Tavares had two goals, Mitch Marner had a goal and two assists, Rielly added four helpers and Kadri put two pucks in the net — albeit only one that counted on the scoreboard because the other was deemed to have been kicked in.

When Marner scored on a late power play with a deflected pass that was intended for either Tavares or Matthews, the hats came out of the stands from fans who just assumed it had been a hat trick for one of the centres.

“I asked for one of the Santa Claus hats, but that’s about it,” said Matthews. “I have enough Leafs hats.”

It was indicative of the party-like atmosphere from a crowd bubbling over with holiday spirit.

As much fun as it was for the players and fans, you got the sense Leafs coach Mike Babcock was approaching the result with caution. He’s seen his team be on the wrong end of a 48-save performance by Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy in the last week and hit an 0-for-17 skid on the power play before coming alive with three special-teams strikes against the Panthers.

The goals won’t always be raining from the sky.

“In the end, you’re going to have to play real good defence to win,” said Babcock. “So, you’re going to have to be a heavy team that can play on the cycle and you’re going to have to be a team that can really defend if you want to have success. We’d like to become that team.”

In the meantime, there are bound to be a few more regular-season nights like this one.

Nights where the stars have their legs and the bounces go their way and the man-advantage opportunities keep coming. There is simply too much talent here to keep them down for too long.

“They didn’t take a ton of shots, but when they did, they were quality shots,” said Luongo. “They had guys moving everywhere — screens, back doors, all that kinda stuff. A couple of them, I didn’t even have time to see the shot. It was already in the back of the net.”

Sometimes there’s only so much you can do.

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