Resurgent Maple Leafs close out 2019 in style with win over Wild

Auston Matthews and William Nylander both had a goal and an assist as the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Minnesota Wild 4-1.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Belief.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are cooking with gas as the calendar turns over to 2020 and the biggest reason for their dramatic in-season turnaround is the spirit in the dressing room. They’ve morphed from a talented group that was underachieving to a confident pack that simply wins out of habit during a tumultuous 41-game stretch.

And as they hit the halfway mark Tuesday with a comfortable 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild, they had every reason to believe that even better things lie ahead.

"We’re just going to keep playing," said captain John Tavares. "I mean obviously things are building. The confidence is getting better.

"I think we’re starting to have a really good feel of the way we want to play."

They were sitting below the playoff cut-off line when Sheldon Keefe replaced Mike Babcock on Nov. 20, and have been the NHL’s best since — topping the league in wins, points, point percentage and goal differential.

Now some of that can be chalked up to a softer schedule, but it’s easy to spot other key factors as well.

Most notably, the big-money forwards are all producing commensurate with their pay cheques. That is the linchpin to this entire operation. Keefe has shuffled the deck by playing Mitch Marner alongside Auston Matthews, and William Nylander alongside Tavares — experiments his predecessor rarely, if ever, tried — and it’s resulted in those players spilling ink all over the score sheet.

"To be honest, this one here has really happened sort of organically," said Keefe. "I mean I had it in the back of my mind, just to see what Auston and Mitch, and what John and Willy would look like. But it happened organically just in a game and then it clicked and we’ve just stayed with it.

"Hopefully stick with it for a bit."

There’s no reason to consider a shakeup when it goes this good.

Tavares is fresh off being named the NHL’s third start of the week and made a great set up on Alexander Kerfoot’s opening goal against the Wild, before hitting an empty net late.

Nylander picked up his sixth goal in as many outings before finding Matthews with a pass so good the Leafs sniper didn’t see it until it was on his stick — reacting quickly to score his 27th of the season and his 11th in 11 games.

"I just saw him back door and I kind of knew he would be open so I just tried to get it over there," said Nylander, now on pace for a career-best 34 goals and 70 points.

Matthews is building a monster campaign that is bound to put him in contention for league-wide hardware if it continues. We are officially on 50-goal watch in Toronto for the first time in more than a quarter century now that he’s smashed through the halfway point on pace for 54.

Then there’s Frederik Andersen, who turned aside 26 shots in Minnesota one day after he was named to the NHL all-star game for the first time. Most important to him is the league-best 20 wins he’s managed to this point, which is a sign that he’s wavered a little less than many of his teammates.

"I think we’re just finding ways to win," said Kerfoot. "I mean we’ve got a belief in our group right now where, whether we’re up in a game or down in a game, we believe that we can beat anyone and we believe that we’re going to find a way no matter situation we’re in.

"When you’ve kind of got that attitude and you’ve got that belief it can go a long way."

The success has been fuelled by a change to the team’s game plan — with players encouraged to hold on to the puck for long stretches in the offensive zone and be selective with their shots.

But as Tavares noted it also comes down to the high-end players performing as they’re expected to, which didn’t always happen in the fall either because of injury or other factors.

They’re rolling now.

In the last two weeks the Leafs have come back from two-goal deficits to earn a victory over Carolina and get a point against the New York Rangers. They rallied from 4-3 down in New Jersey to win in overtime.

And they’ve occasionally been in control from start to finish — which is how things felt on a festive New Year’s Eve inside Xcel Energy Center.

"We’ve handled all sorts of situations, right?" said Keefe. "A lot has happened in the short amount of time that I’ve been here, but I think all of that will serve us well."

"If anything, there’s more of a belief," veteran Jason Spezza said this week. "‘OK stick with it. What we’re doing works. Stick with it.’ The Rangers game, I don’t think we get a point there maybe a month ago. Like even the start of with Keefer, the belief wasn’t there.

"Now we believe that we can come back in games, you never feel like you’re out of it. Like that game felt like we were going to tie it up. It felt like it was only a matter of time."

With a new year and a second half still to be played, everything suddenly seems possible.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.