TORONTO – The Maple Leafs, like the Buffalo Sabres of a year ago, had to improve this season because 30th place was no longer their target.
After bottoming out on purpose, the Leafs added first overall pick Auston Matthews to their large stable of young talent. They also have Mike Babcock, arguably the NHL’s best coach.
Few, however, expected the upstart Leafs would be this good this soon. After Tuesday’s Tuesday’s 4-3 win over the Sabres, their ninth victory in 11 games, they have 50 points, good for third in the Atlantic Division, a playoff spot.
“You can hear the excitement across the border with where they’re at,” Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said Monday inside the Air Canada Centre.
Meanwhile, the Sabres, who emerged from their rebuild long before the Leafs, rank last in the division, seven points behind their closest rival.
Somehow, Matthews, the new face of the Leafs, has been better than many people expected. The Arizona-raised center, 19, already has 22 goals and 38 points in 42 games. The rookie has 16 goals in the last 23 contests.
“We were going through a stretch where we were winning games and people were saying we were going to be another lottery (team),” Matthews said Tuesday. “Now we’re a playoff team. There’s obviously ups and downs.”
For the first time Tuesday, Matthews faced his friend, Sabres center Jack Eichel. The two American youngsters share a friendship and a mutual respect.
“He’s a special player,” Matthews said of Eichel.
Eichel said: “I spent a lot of time with him. He’s a good dude. I’m happy to see him having success.”
The two spent time as together a few years ago in the United States Development Program and have also been teammates in international competitions, most recently the World Cup of Hockey.
Eichel, 20, has often been given a forced rivalry with Edmonton star Connor McDavid, the dynamic talent drafted ahead of him in 2015. But given their proximity, Eichel and Matthews tilts could become must-watch hockey five or more times a season for the next 10 years.
That should only strengthen the rivalry between two teams that Eichel said “don’t like each other.”
On a delayed penalty early in Monday afternoon’s 4-1 win, Sabres defenseman Taylor Fedun thought he had scored his third NHL goal.
The puck went in the net, the horn sounded and the crowd cheered. The officials, however, had blown the play dead when Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen made a quick save.
“I thought it was just a rebound off the goalie,” Fedun said Tuesday. “But I guess they ruled when he had his paddle down that counted as possessing the puck.”
Until then, Fedun said he hadn’t thought much about scoring. But being robbed of his first goal since Nov. 17, 2013 got him thinking “a little bit” about getting another one.
“I scored one in each of my first two games,” Fedun said. “I haven’t scored since.”
Fedun, oddly enough, hasn’t scored a goal in his last 26 appearances.
“The position I’m in distributing the puck is a little more important for me,” he said. “I’m just kind of going with the mindset that if I keep doing that effectively, the goals will come. If they don’t, honestly, it’s not the end of the world for me.”
Fedun has 11 assists in his NHL career, including six in a career-high 16 games this season.
The Princeton product has meshed well with the Sabres, showcasing his strong ability to dish the puck, especially on the power play.
Following rough outings in consecutive road losses last week, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen rebounded with arguably his “best game of the year” Monday, Bylsma said.
“He couldn’t have gotten a higher mark in the game from the coaching staff in how he played,” he said.
Ristolainen played 26 minutes, 13 seconds against the Stars’ talented forward group.
“(He was) big, strong, physical, made hard plays, was very, very good defensively,” Bylsma said.
Notes: Sabres defenseman Cody Franson played his 500th NHL game. … Bylsma said defenseman Josh Gorges, out the last six games with a hip injury, will see a doctor in the next day or two.