By Joshua Clipperton in Toronto
Auston Matthews dealt with a series of nagging injuries last season.
And still put up 85 points in just 74 games.
Now fully healthy, the Maple Leafs star is looking a lot like his MVP-calibre self early on in 2023-24.
The rest of the league is already on notice.
Matthews registered his second hat trick in as many games to open the season Saturday as Toronto thumped the Minnesota Wild 7-4.
“Wow,” said Leafs winger William Nylander, whose five points to kick off the schedule, including two goals and an assist against Minnesota, have been largely overshadowed by No. 34’s dominance.
“He’s been incredible taking pucks to the net, scoring all kinds of goals. He’s been dialed in.”
Matthews is the fifth player in NHL history to open a season with consecutive hat tricks, joining Alex Ovechkin (2017-18), Cy Denneny (1917-18), Joe Malone (1917-18) and Reg Noble (1917-18).
“It’s been fun,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said of watching Matthews go to work. “You don’t expect back-to-back hat tricks, of course, but I’ve gotten somewhat comfortable and used to Auston having big nights, making a big impact.
“To do so back-to-back nights to start a season, it’s terrific.”
Calle Jarnkrok, with a goal and an assist, and Tyler Bertuzzi also scored for Toronto, which got 28 saves from Ilya Samsonov. Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly added two assists each.
Matthews had 60 goals and 106 points on his way to winning the Hart Trophy as MVP in 2021-22 before wrist and knee issues sliced his totals last season.
Now he’s back.
“I want to play at the highest level that I can every night,” Matthews said. “I’m not really thinking in the past or thinking about years in the past. It’s all about today.
“Just trying to go out and put in my best effort and do what I can to help the team.”
Matt Boldy, Ryan Hartman, Marco Rossi and Brandon Duhaime replied for Minnesota. Jake Middleton and Connor Dewar both had two assists. Filip Gustavsson stopped 26 shots.
Toronto, which picked up a 6-5 shootout victory over Montreal in its season-opener Wednesday, fell behind at 9:32 of the first period when Hartman tipped a shot past Samsonov.
That was Matthews’ cue to take over.
The Leafs centre beat Gustavsson just 1:22 later and then made it 2-1 at 12:35 on a 4-on-3 power play when his shot from a sharp angle went in off a Minnesota stick for his fifth goal in four periods.
“He’s feeling it,” Rielly said. “When your guy’s doing that and controlling the game, putting the puck in the net, it gives us a good chance to win.”
Keefe said it’s about more than just the goals with Matthews.
“The year he got 60, defensively he was outstanding, and the year before that defensively he was outstanding,” said the coach. “He’s just got way more jump in all areas of the game on both sides of the puck.”
Nylander then brought the Scotiabank Arena back out of its seats on a breathtaking individual effort late in the period when he stepped past a couple of defenders and slotted home his second of the campaign.
“World-class stuff,” Keefe said.
“It was beautiful,” Matthews added.
Gustavsson, who made 41 saves in a 2-0 shutout over Florida in Minnesota’s curtain-raiser Thursday, allowed Toronto’s fourth of the night when Bertuzzi scored his first with the Leafs on another power play at 3:35 of the second for a 4-1 lead.
But the Wild got back within two 34 seconds later when Boldy fooled Samsonov on a shot the netminder will want back, and Rossi batted in his first NHL goal at 9:51 to make it 4-3 through 40 minutes.
Samsonov made a terrific save to deny Rossi his second early in the third and Gustavsson denied Matthews on a power play at the other end.
The Leafs went back up by two at 9:54 when Jarnkrok finished off a great pass from Rielly before Matthews completed the ninth hat trick of his career on a wraparound 19 seconds later to become the first Leafs player to register consecutive three-goal games since Wendel Clark in 1994.
“He’s gonna do a lot of damage on a lot of records,” Rielly said. “And a lot of Leafs records.”
Nylander added his second of the night and third overall off the rush at 12:15 and Duhaime got a consolation goal late in regulation on another night that belonged to Matthews.
“He has high aspirations for himself,” Rielly said. “When he trains all off-season, comes in healthy and he’s playing the way he is, you can only really watch. You just want to encourage him, let him do his thing.
“He’s taking care of business.”
REAVO ANSWERS BELL
Toronto winger Ryan Reaves dropped the gloves with Minnesota forward Marcus Foligno in the first after laying out Frederick Gaudreau with a clean hit.
The Leafs tough guy, who played 61 games with the Wild last season, also fought Montreal defenceman Arber Xhekaj on Wednesday.
“Been an unreal addition,” Matthews said of Reaves, who shared a laugh with Foligno post-game outside the locker rooms. “Big hits, getting the momentum back on our side.
“And obviously he’s not afraid to chuck ’em.”
Leafs rookie Matthew Knies faced Wild counterpart and University of Minnesota teammate Brock Faber for the first time in the NHL.
“One of my best friends,” Knies said. “Great role model, love to learn from that guy. It’s pretty cool that I get to play against him now on such a stage.”
Banner image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Leafs: Host the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday.
Wild: Visit the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 14, 2023.