Leafs open season-ending homestand vs. Caps

TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in an ideal spot as they try to clinch a playoff spot.

They will finish their regular season with four games at the Air Canada Centre, starting with a Tuesday game against the league-leading Washington Capitals.

The Maple Leafs played their final away game of the regular season Monday night when they defeated the Buffalo Sabres 4-2 to sweep a three-game road trip.

“This week is going to be huge for us,” said Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen, who faced only 22 shots Monday. “It’s a tough week. We knew on this road trip we could get some points and, obviously, the more the better … the less we have to force ourselves to get in the last home stand there. We want to keep playing well and keep winning.

Toronto (39-24-15) is on a four-game winning streak and is up to second place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the Ottawa Senators, who lost 5-4 to the Detroit Red Wings in a shootout Monday, and the Boston Bruins. Ottawa has four games to play and Boston three.

The Maple Leafs face a stiff challenge Tuesday, though, as the Capitals are playoff-bound and trying to secure first place in the Eastern Conference.

“I think we’ve been playing some pretty good hockey as of late and this is a pretty good time to be heating up for us,” Maple Leafs rookie center Auston Matthews said. “We just want to continue to play the right way and we’ve got some pretty important games here down the stretch.”

The Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday gave them 112 points and a five-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. The Blue Jackets are six points behind the Capitals (52-18-8).

“I think it’s important,” Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie said of earning the conference’s No. 1 seed. “I think home ice throughout the postseason is important. I think whoever we match up against, it’s going to be a battle, but we definitely want to finish in that top spot, and we want to finish well.”

The Capitals have won six of their past seven games against the Maple Leafs. Alex Ovechkin has 59 points in 41 career games against Toronto. He has earned a point in seven straight games against the Maple Leafs.

“We came with a lot more purpose than we have been lately,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after the win Sunday.

Against the Sabres on Monday, the Maple Leafs struck for three first-period goals in a span of 43 seconds, four seconds longer than the club record for three goals set in 1940.

“Obviously, they played (Sunday) and we were here watching them, kind of like Washington before (Tuesday),” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “We were able to jump on them early.”

“It was really important, especially when a team is playing a back-to-back,” Matthews said. “You want to make sure you get out there — a big part of our game is skating so I think that’s what we did really well. When you put up three goals there in a short span of time, it’s a good sign.”

Matthews scored the second goal in that burst, his 39th goal and 67th point of the season, a Maple Leafs rookie record. Peter Ihnacak had 66 points in 1982-83.

Matthews has scored in five straight games, tying the team goal streak by a rookie set by Gaye Stewart in 1942.

Matthews also set a record for the most goals by a U.S.-born rookie.

“I’ve played with some pretty good players so a lot of credit to them,” Matthews said. “I think the most important part is, for the team, we’ve been getting better and better each game, each segment. We’re in a good spot right now and we just want to continue to play well.”