BUFFALO -- If the Toronto Maple Leafs are to have any kind of success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they will need Auston Matthews to be as dominant as he was in a 4-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center on Wednesday.
The center had a goal and assist to move Toronto within four points of the second-place Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division and 10 points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens. But Matthews' dominance cut far deeper than the numbers on a stat sheet. With Toronto coming into the game in a 1-4-0 funk, Matthews, competing with a combination of determination and anger, controlled the puck at times as if it was his and no one else's.
Duplicating such a feat in the postseason will be far more difficult, given the smothering defenses opposing teams will greet him with. He learned that lesson last spring courtesy of Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, who helped limit Matthews to two points in a seven-game elimination of the Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference First Round.
What provides optimism for the Maple Leafs this time around is that Matthews exhibited a chip on his shoulder and fire in his belly after the team's recent struggles. He admitted he's been upset at many of Toronto's sub-par performances and decided to take matters in his own hands.
"The slump we've been in lately, it's frustrating for everybody," Matthews said. "You try to stay positive but it's getting towards the end of the season and you want to make sure your game is peaking at this point individually."
Matthews, who has 68 points (35 goals, 33 assists) was a force in the offensive end with 12 shot attempts. Toronto outshot Buffalo 16-7 in 5-on-5 situations with him on the ice.
Video: TOR@BUF: Matthews nets equalizer off his skate
But it was his 200-foot game that was most impressive. Backchecking - or a lack thereof - has been an issue for Toronto, which had allowed 26 goals in its previous five games.
"I thought [Matthews] was real good," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. "I just thought he skated and he was determined - real good defensively and real good offensively and in the end I thought it was a real positive."
Watching Matthews up close has been an education for center John Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with Toronto on July 1. On the nights Matthews showcases his special combination of will and skill, Tavares said the Maple Leafs are a team to be reckoned with.
"Being around him every day, you understand what makes him a special hockey player," Tavares said. "His ability just to stay on the puck, track it down, when you think it's going the other way, his ability to strip guys and be able to hang onto it, protect it, and use his size, he's so deceptive with his shot or finding the open man. He was a force for us."
At 6-foot-3 and 223 pounds, Matthews has the physical attributes to be exactly that. And although his game often showcases more hustle than muscle, he knows he'll have to get into the dirty areas in front of the net with regularity at playoff time when so-called greasy goals become more prevalent.
Matthews and Tavares once again learned that lesson against the Sabres. Matthews' goal came when Andreas Johnsson's backhand pass deflected off his skate at the edge of the crease and past Sabres goalie Carter Hutton in the second period. Tavares was almost in the same spot when a bouncing puck landed at his skate before the second intermission, leaving him with a tap-in into an open net to put Toronto up 2-1.
"Some dirty goals," Matthews said. "Sometimes you just have to get to the front of the net and it will go off a skate or a shin pad or fall there for you."
Matthews has 200 points (109 goals, 91 assists) in 204 NHL games for the Maple Leafs (44-25-5). His line, which features wings William Nylander (six assists in his past five games) and Johnsson (five points in his past six games) is starting to jell at what he hopes is just the right time.
Video: TOR@BUF: Matthews gets 200th point on Tavares' goal
"[Nylander's] confidence seems like it's just getting higher and higher every game," Matthews said. "We've rekindled a bit of what we had the first two years playing together and [Johnsson] has just been unbelievable. For how small he is (5-10, 181), he just shows no fear. He goes into corners and he just battles hard. That's all you can ask for from a guy like him. He's fun to play with, as well as Willy.
"Just holding onto it down low and taking care of it in the neutral zone, we were making sure that below the dots we were moving it, and just finding each other in different areas, shooting the puck, and getting it back was a big key for all three of us."