The Toronto Maple Leafs were winless through their first two preseason games, both against the Ottawa Senators.
On one hand, it’s still so early, and the games are still too meaningless for most to really care about. Half the lineup consists of minor leaguers trying to make the team, after all.
But on the other hand, there comes a point where you start to wonder whether you’re ready for the fast-approaching regular season.
Fortunately for the Maple Leafs, any questions about their preparedness were silenced Friday night as their top players led them to a 3-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on home ice.
“I think every game you want to get better and better,” Auston Matthews said of the team’s gradual improvement thus far. “I thought once we settled in we started playing better and in that second and third we were really able to control the play and have the puck quite a bit.”
As is often the case, Matthews was a key difference maker for the Maple Leafs. He collected a secondary assist on the opening goal after his deflected shot bounced right to Kenny Agostino, who fed a nifty centering pass through the legs of Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark.
The puck landed right to Andreas Johnsson who tapped in the power-play marker.
Matthews potted the Leafs’ second goal a period later. He timed his drive perfectly, streaking in undetected as William Nylander curled behind the net before feeding a cross-crease pass for Matthews to fire home.
It’s no secret how deadly that one-two punch can be, but it was scarcely seen last year after Nylander missed training camp and the first two months of the season.
If the Maple Leafs are going to reach the next level this season, they’ll need both Matthews and Nylander to dominate like they did Friday night on a consistent basis. And it seems like their coach knows that too.
“Willy [Nylander] might have had the puck as much tonight as he did last year,” head coach Mike Babcock said after the game. “That line was dominant. They had the puck a lot.”
The 23-year-old finished the game with just the one assist, but it was not for lack of trying. Nylander recorded a game-leading 15 attempts at the net plus nine scoring chances, including a pair of breakaways that he failed to convert.
Those numbers might not be there on the score sheet just yet, but all signs point to a bounce-back season for the Swede.
“We’re feeling pretty good. Just want to keep building and building every day,” said Nylander. “It’d be nice to maybe hit the net on a few too. Give me a chance to score.”
The Maple Leafs will face off against the Sabres again on Saturday night in Buffalo to mark the midway point of the preseason.