BUFFALO, N.Y. — Having already missed 14 games with a shoulder injury, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews wasn’t going to let a little fatigue prevent him from jumping into the play for one last rush.
Rather than go to the bench with Kasperi Kapanen flying up the left wing, Matthews drove down the middle, received his teammate’s pass and snapped a shot over Buffalo Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark’s left shoulder to seal Toronto’s 4-3 win with three seconds on the clock in overtime Tuesday night.
“Lucky to get it off with a little bit of time remaining,” said Matthews, who scored twice and added an assist to give him five goals and seven points in three games since returning to the lineup. “I’m starting to feel more and more like myself.”
That’s bad news for the rest of the NHL, and good news for the Maple Leafs (20-8), who have won five straight and matched their best start to a season in 84 years. The only other time in took them just 28 games to reach 20 wins was when they opened the 1934-35 season at 20-6-2.
“It can only help when you add a player like Auston back in the lineup,” Patrick Marleau said. “He’s definitely a game-changer.”
Marleau scored with 5:13 remaining in regulation to force overtime. Jake Gardiner also scored and Mitchell Marner had an assist to give him 11 in five games. Frederik Andersen stopped 38 shots to win his fourth straight.
Jack Eichel scored twice for Buffalo, which dropped to 0-2-2 since equaling the franchise record with a 10-game winning streak. Sam Reinhart had a goal and an assist, and defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen set up two for Buffalo.
Ullmark stopped 26 shots.
“It’s not easy right now, for sure. It’s pretty disappointing,” Reinhart said. “We’ve got to find a way to get back on the winning side of things and that starts Saturday.”
He was referring to Buffalo getting three days off following a stretch of playing four games in six nights, including a 2-1 loss at Nashville on Monday.
The Sabres showed plenty of jump in outshooting the Maple Leafs 11-3 midway through the first period. And they showed resolve in the third period, when Eichel scored twice in a 10-minute span to put the Sabres up 3-2 with 7:03 remaining.
Buffalo was unable to hold the lead, though, as Marleau tied it 1:50 later when Morgan Rielly’s shot from the left point went wide. The puck caromed to Marleau, who came out from behind the net and stuffed it inside the right post.
“Obviously, they get the extra point and it’s frustrating, but give us credit,” Eichel said, noting the Maple Leafs were off since a 5-3 win at Minnesota on Saturday. “They’re sitting here waiting for us. It’s not easy. And I thought we brought a lot of compete and effort.”
After winning seven one-goal games during their 10-game streak, the Sabres have dropped four straight by one goal.
The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have scored four or more in each of their past five games, and 16 times overall this season.
Aside from Matthews’ return, they’re also prepared to welcome back forward William Nylander after he and the Maple Leafs finally agreed to a contract Saturday.
“Hopefully, he can do what Auston does and jump right in like he hasn’t missed a beat,” Marleau said of Nylander, a two-time 20-goal-scorer.
Nylander remained in Toronto where he skated on his own as he continues conditioning. There remains no timetable for when he’ll play his first game.
Coach Mike Babcock said the Maple Leafs’ impressive start is a reflection of the team’s talent.
“We’ve got good young players and we think we’re going in the right direction,” Babcock said. “Now, we’ve still got to get a lot better to do what we want to do. So 20 wins is great. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
NOTES: Though the Sabres are drawing larger crowds with each win, that didn’t drown out the “Go, Leafs, Go!” chants from Toronto fans who made the trip across the border. Before the game, Babcock commented on the Sabres’ improvement this season by saying: “Pretty soon, Leaf fans won’t be able to buy tickets here because Buffalo fans will have bought them already.” … Sabres RW Jason Pominville is day to day and missed his second game with an upper-body injury. … Sabres LW Conor Sheary returned after missing four games with an upper-body injury.
Maple Leafs: Host the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday before opening a five-game road trip.
Sabres: Off until hosting the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday afternoon.
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John Wawrow, The Associated Press