Maple Leafs' stars come out to dance, delivering win over old nemesis

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his goal during second period NHL action against the Boston Bruins. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – Things are starting to feel a little more normal again, aren’t they?

Auston Matthews is pounding pucks past helpless padded men, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ $44.5-million power play is cashing in, and — for the first time in the Sheldon Keefe era — they’re playing the Boston Bruins.

Yes, the stars came out to dance in a buzzing barn Saturday night, rekindling their hate affair with a divisional rival they hadn’t faced in 722 days.

On the strength of their Core Four forwards, the Leafs bumped their win streak to five with a 5-2 come-from-behind triumph over their arch nemesis in what was the home side’s most engaged and most entertaining (80 shots!) dose of hockey in this young campaign.

The phrase “your best players must be your best players” is one of the dustiest in the The Big Book of Hockey Clichés. But when you realize Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander have scored all the team’s last 13 goals?

Well, the story writes itself.

“We need those guys to produce,” Keefe said. “It’s no coincidence that we’ve started to roll as a team since that has happened.”

Marner had a game-high three takeaways to go with his four points. Matthews and Tavares each hung two goals. And the "We Can and We Will" crew combined for a whopping 20 shots on net.

To think, a scant 10 days ago, these same game-breakers were stuck in the mud, mired under the weight of a four-game losing skid.

Murmurs of a coach on the hot seat percolated, and the ever-rational folks on social media fired and/or traded away key cogs of this scrutinized operation. A replica jersey was chucked on the ice in disgust.

“You feel like you’re never going to win again,” said Morgan Rielly, thinking back to their rocky road trip. “It was a bit of a slow start for the guys. We were feeling it a little bit. It’s a better feeling now.”

Tell the haters to fall back like daylight savings.

“The highs can get real high here, and the lows can get real low,” Matthews smiled, slyly. “I think sometimes you’ve just got to take a step back and take a breath.”

Much like Thursday’s OT win over Tampa Bay, the Leafs dug themselves a hole early. But unlike that night, their response was swift and dangerous.

With Jake Muzzin in the box for a delay-of-game penalty, Taylor Hall — Boston’s new net-front power-play man — tipped a Patrice Bergeron shot in tight to get the Bruins on the scoreboard before the contest was nine minutes old.

Tavares clapped back for the Leafs and tied the game not four minutes later by driving the paint himself and getting a piece of a Marner shot as Bergeron knocked the posts off their moorings.

The captain later revealed his 11-month-old son, Axton, was in attendance — baby’s first Leaf game.

“That’s everything to me,” Tavares said of his family. “It just gives tremendous perspective. They went through a lot last year not being able to be part of it.”

Period 2 belonged to Matthews and the Leafs’ oft-maligned 5-on-4 unit, which has now made its last four opponents pay for their sins.

Within a four-minute span, Matthews struck gold twice on the man-advantage, the sniper and the PP coming alive in unison.

First, Matthews took a feed from Marner on a speedy entry and flipped a backhander past Linus Ullmark in tight.

Then he blasted a one-timer short-side off a point pass from Rielly, registering his third consecutive multi-point night.

“We’re hounding pucks back, keeping plays alive,” Matthews explained. “That’s when we’re able to break it down a little bit and make these seam plays and pretty plays where we can open up the penalty kill.”

Tavares joined Matthews in the Two-Goal Night Club early in the third. As the coach’s smart choice to serve a too-many-men bench minor, Tavares hopped out of the penalty box and did this:

“[Tavares] looks as good as I’ve ever seen him look,” Rielly said. Strong, focused, relentless, setting the tone. “He’s obviously motivated.”

This is what the formula looks like when the main ingredients are fresh and crackling together.

The Maple Leafs are playing their best hockey, led by their best players, benefiting from their biggest crowd (19,077) yet.

Hey, rolling in the regular-season — feels normal again, doesn’t it?

“The biggest thing is we’ve just shown belief. Just stay with it," Keefe said, before tagging this feel-good tale with a cautionary note.

“Just as we had to block out the noise when things weren’t going well, it’s equally as important to do it now.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Keefe says the onus is on Justin Holl to not get discouraged after being healthy-scratched for a fourth consecutive game.

“He’s in control of how he handles this," the coach said, after speaking with the D-man Saturday morning. "We didn't intend on him sitting this long, frankly, but that's just the way it's gone. The others have played well; the team has played well and had success. It's on him to stay engaged, continue to work and make sure when his opportunity comes, he's ready to go.”

• Michael Bunting leads all Maple Leafs with six drawn penalties.

• Rare sighting: With the Bruins sporting their black third jerseys with the big unspoked B, the Leafs rocked home whites for the first time in a long time.

• Why did Tavares’ goal count despite being fired into a dislodged net?

Per Rule 63.7, referee Ian Walsh determined Bergeron, the defending player, caused the net to be displaced prior to the puck crossing the line and that had the net been in place, the puck would have went in.

“I learned a little bit about how the rule works,” Keefe admitted post-game.

• Travis Dermott on former Erie Otters teammate Connor McDavid’s Goal of the Year frontrunner: “It was getting pushed all over the place, so the second I turned on my phone, it was right up there. Beautiful goal. When you see that, it reminds me of all the times I played with him and he burned me like that in practice.”

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