MONTREAL -- Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe admitted that he had a bit of moment when watching fourth-line wingers Joe Thornton and Jason Spezza reach new highs during his team's 4-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens.
"Those guy were in the offensive zone snapping the puck at each other, it's cool, it's a cool moment."
Spezza collected two assists to give him 966 points for his NHL career. That tied him with Canadiens legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard for 99th on the NHL's all-time scoring list. Thornton recorded his 1100th-career assist, to become just the seventh player in the league to even accomplish the feat.
Their combined efforts came on the last two Leafs goals to help the team become the first team in the North Division to punch their ticket to the postseason.
"We're playing with a couple of living legends," said Auston Matthews, who notched his league-leading 35th goal of the season. "It's pretty awesome."
Both players signed one-year contracts worth the league-minimum $700,000 back in October. Although, Spezza returned to the team after joining the previous season, Thornton along with other veterans like forward Wayne Simmonds and defenseman Zach Bogosian joined a group looking to put the Leafs over the top.
Clinching a playoff berth was addressed by Keefe both before and after the game, but they won't celebrate too hard.
"We've felt like a playoff team for quite a long time here, yet you still have to accomplish it" Keefe said. "We also acknowledge that we're working towards bigger things."
The Leafs and Canadiens were neck-and-neck in January. A 5-0-2 start from Montreal kept them in contention for the division lead until Toronto finally separated themselves from the pack in mid-February.
As the season went along, there were challengers looking to eclipse Toronto.
In late February, the Leafs went into Edmonton to play three games against a surging Oilers team that had moved to just four points behind the Leafs for the division lead. Toronto swept the all three games in regulation and allowed just one goal in the series.
In March it was the Jets who looked to usurp the Leafs. Toronto defeated them in consecutive games in Winnipeg to eliminate the threat.
The Leafs did it again last week.
On Wednesday, Toronto improved to 31-13-5 and lead the second-place Edmonton Oilers by seven points with just seven games remaining.
"Yeah, step 1 is done," Thornton said.
Fans of both the Leafs and Canadiens had long been for a playoff series between the two clubs. If the season were to end today, both teams would meet in the opening round.
The Canadiens are six points behind third-place Winnipeg and six points above the fifth-place Calgary Flames after Wednesday's result.
The Leafs can only continue to take care of their own business.
"The focus the rest of the way is just try to play good hockey," Spezza said.
Rough first period despite goals
The Leafs jumped out to a lead after William Nylander opened the scoring on the power play.
Matthews followed with an incredible hand-eye movement to knock down the puck before beating Canadiens goalie Jake Allen.
"I appreciate that he bailed out Nick Foligno," Keefe said of Matthews' goal. "Blocking in the middle of the ice, it could have been a real bad turnover for us and they picked it off with a goal.
"It was a sign of the type of night it was for us tonight."
Outside of those two goals, Keefe wasn't happy about how the opposition was forcing their way to Toronto's net.
"The second half of that first period was a struggle for us," Keefe said."
Although the Canadiens had more possession at times, the Leafs managed to limit the scoring chances against. When the Canadiens did attack the net, Jack Campbell was sharp. After a few starts this month where he seemed to struggle to find his confidence, Campbell has regained his form as of late.
He made 32 saves to pick up a team-high 14th win of the season, one more than Frederik Andersen.
In his last three starts, Campbell posted a .949 save percentage. After admitting that he he had to not be so hard on himself during his recent slump, Campbell appears to be having fun again.
"I'm really enjoying it," Campbell said "It's a great opportunity to play more and just show what I can do and get the confidence of the team."