BUFFALO, N.Y. â€” Auston Matthews’ record-setting rookie season has the Toronto Maple Leafs on the verge of returning to the playoffs.
Matthews recorded his 67th point of the season with his 39th goal to set the franchise rookie scoring record and the Maple Leafs beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 on Monday night to move closer to clinching their second post-season berth in 12 years.
His goal also marked the most by an American-born rookie.
The NHL’s top rookie scorer downplayed his achievement after Toronto closed out a three-game road trip with its fourth straight win.
“I play with some pretty great players, so a lot of credit to them,” Matthews said. “But I think the most important part is that, as a team, we have been getting better each game, each segment, so we are in a good spot right now and just need to continue to play well.”
Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said team success matters more to Matthews than breaking records.
“He’s a mature young man who wants to be great and you are measured in championships in this league,” Babcock said.
Nazem Kadri had a goal and an assist, James van Rimedsyk and Leo Komarov also scored, and Frederick Andersen made 18 saves for the Maple Leafs.
The victory vaulted Toronto one point ahead of Boston and Ottawa for second-place in the Atlantic Division.
“All the good teams that are usually in it are doing their job and winning games and now it’s up to us to do our job and win games,” Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “We’re just focused on winning every game between now and the end of the season.”
Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly scored for Buffalo. Robin Lehner was pulled after giving up three goals on five shots in the first five minutes, and Anders Nillson stopped 32 of the 33 shots he faced.
The Sabres have lost three in a row and are 6-12-2 in their past 20 games. The late-season collapse will extend Buffalo’s playoff drought to six consecutive seasons.
Playing in Buffalo for the second time in nine days, the Maple Leafs evened a 5-2 loss in their previous visit. A large contingent of Toronto fans filled the KeyBank Center with chants of “Go Leafs, go!”
“They were hungrier,” Eichel said. “They wanted it more than us.”
Matthews scored his milestone goal in the same arena in which the Maple Leafs selected the 19-year-old centre from Scottsdale, Arizona, with the No. 1 pick in June.
Receiving a pass from rookie linemate William Nylander in the left circle, Matthews buried a slap shot to extend his point streak to nine games and give Toronto a 2-0 lead 5:01 into the first period.
Nylander’s assist gave him 60 points on the season. The Maple Leafs are the second NHL team to have three rookies with 60 or more points, joining the 1980-81 Quebec Nordiques.
Matthrews’ goal was one of three the Maple Leafs scored in a span of 43 seconds to take a 3-0 lead before the Sabres put a shot on net.
Komarov got the first goal at 4:26. Buffalo’s Jake McCabe tried to clear the puck from behind the net but Kadri intercepted the errant pass and set up Komarov for a tap-in from the left slot.
Matthews’ goal came 35 seconds later and Toronto added to its tally just 8 seconds after that when Tyler Bozak won a faceoff in the Buffalo zone and van Rimesdyk scored his 26th on a wrist shot from the high slot.
“We basically handed them two of the goals, for sure,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s no way to start a hockey game.”
O’Reilly made it 3-1 when he scored his 20th on a short-handed breakaway 1:51 into the second period. Eichel scored his 24th on a breakaway in the final minute of the game, notching his first point in three games.
Kadri’s power play goal at 5:50 of the third was his 31st of the season.
NOTES: Matthews scored in his 78th game to surpass Neal Broten, who scored 38 goals in 73 games for the Minnesota North Stars in 1981-82. … Peter Ihnacak had 66 points for the Maple Leafs as a rookie in 1982-83. … Buffalo’s Alexander Nylander, the younger brother of Toronto’s William Nylander, made his NHL debut after being called up from AHL Rochester on Monday. The Sabres selected the 19-year-old winger with the No. 8 pick in last year’s draft. … The Maple Leafs’ three goals in 43 seconds was four seconds shy of the team record set on Jan. 20, 1940, in a 5-1 win over the New York Americans.
Maple Leafs: Close regular season with four-game homestand starting Tuesday night against Washington.
Sabres: Host Montreal on Wednesday night.
Jonah Bronstein, The Associated Press