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Matthews sets new standard as undermanned Leafs start road trip

Toronto Maple Leafs Auston Matthews - The Canadian Press
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The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre before flying to St. Louis on Sunday. 


The chants of "MVP! MVP!" once again echoed throughout Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night as Auston Matthews continued to score at a pace not seen in more than 30 years. 

"Playing here is a big honour and to be able to have the support from the fans ... it's something that none of us take for granted," Matthews said. "It's definitely special."

What Matthews is doing right now is definitely special. The superstar centre recorded his sixth hat trick of the season during Saturday's 9-2 thrashing of the lowly Anaheim Ducks. That's a Leafs record and something we haven't seen in the NHL since Mario Lemieux turned the trick six times for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96.

"It's obviously hard to put into words," said Matthews. "To be in the same sentence as a guy like that, it's pretty cool."

Wayne Gretzky holds the record for most hat tricks in a season. He recorded 10 in 1981-82 and 1983-84. 

Matthews is on pace for 75 goals. Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny are the last players to reach 70 with both notching 76 in 1992-93. 

"It's insane," said winger William Nylander, who picked up his 500th career point on Saturday. "I mean, what's the second best guy in the league got right now? I don't even know."

Sam Reinhart of the Florida Panthers is the closest pursuer of Matthews in the Rocket Richard Trophy race with 39 goals in 55 games. Matthews has 48 goals in 52 games. 

"He's just crushing it," said Nylander, who is second on the Leafs with 28 goals. "It's what he does."

But he's never done it quite like this.  

Matthews also scored three goals in Thursday's win against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Arizona native started the season with consecutive three-goal games. He is the fifth player in NHL history to go back-to-back twice in the same season joining an exclusive club that includes Reg Noble (1917-18), Joe Malone (1917-18), Mike Bossy (1980-81) and Gretzky (1983-84).

"Guys are looking around like, 'This is ridiculous what he's doing,'" said left winger Bobby McMann. "It just seems like every time it's on his stick it goes in the net."

"He is scoring in different ways," pointed out coach Sheldon Keefe. "He scores on a pass out from below the goal line and goes low blocker. He scores on a one-timer. And then he scores on a redirected puck on the glove side."

And Matthews could have scored even more on Saturday, but Keefe limited him to 14 minutes and 52 seconds amid the blowout win. That's a season low. 

"It seems like he is raising the standard consistently," Keefe said. "It is exceptional. I have kind of gone through the phase where you are in awe of Auston, you know? But this is a new standard for him to have a hat trick and then follow it up again, which — as we know — is not the first time he has done it. It is pretty remarkable."

ContentId(1.2077821): Should a 70-goal season lock up the Hart for Matthews?

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Matthews finished with a career high five points on Saturday and seemed determined to get winger Tyler Bertuzzi a goal during a second period power play. 

"As much as Auston has been shooting the puck and is at the net a ton, I thought the pass by Auston was world-class, too," Keefe said. "It was great to see. Auston, if you watch that play, to me, he is waiting for the right opportunity to find the stick of Bert. It was a priority for him to get him that one."

The longest drought between goals for Matthews this season is four games. Bertuzzi had gone 19 straight without a goal. 

"He's a big part of this team and a big part of our locker room," said Matthews. "So, seeing him get that one feels good for everybody, but I'm sure it feels really good for him."

"It felt good," confirmed Bertuzzi, who had not scored since Dec. 27. "I hit the post just before. Yeah, it felt good to see it go in."

Did he sense Matthews was looking for him? 

"Yeah a little bit," Bertuzzi said with a smile. "Usually I hug the left post and I kind backed up a little bit, because the weak-side D was playing a little bit higher and he gave me a great pass."

"He's had more than enough opportunities, but sometimes you just get a little snakebitten," said Matthews. "That one goes in and now you just don't look back."

Bertuzzi got a chance to play on the top power play unit because John Tavares was sidelined with an undisclosed injury. 

"It was good," Bertuzzi said of the promotion. "Get some touches. Got a little bit of confidence and just looking forward to next game."

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McMann scored his own hat trick on Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues. He came within one goal of repeating the feat against Anaheim. 

"I was telling him to fire it for one more," Matthews said with a smile. "It would've been pretty cool to see."

It's not easy trying to keep up with Matthews. 

"Ah, pretty much impossible," McMann said with a grin. "After the second one he's like, 'One more. One more.' I'm like, 'It's easier said than done.' He makes it look easy."

It hasn't been an easy path to the NHL for McMann. Saturday was only his 39th career game. The undrafted 27-year-old scored just two goals through 36 games before this week. 

"He just keeps getting better and better each game," Matthews said. "Just the consistency factor, the level of intensity he brings, he's just a monster out there, so another great night for him."

McMann was slated to be a healthy scratch on Tuesday, but drew into the lineup when Tavares came down with an illness and couldn't suit up.

"Credit to him," Keefe said. "He has gone from a healthy scratch early this week to being inserted into the lineup when guys got sick. Now, he has five goals this week. It is pretty remarkable. He has played really well, too. He has done a number of good things where he looks super confident with the puck. He is skating, moving his feet, challenging defenders, and he has been really good on the walls in his own zone."

McMann took Bertuzzi's spot on the second power play unit and scored his first career power-play goal. He also got some time on the penalty kill. 

"Areas I want to grow my game," the native of Wainwright, Alta. said. "Obviously it's not just handed out. That's something I want to continue to earn. It's something I did in the American League, played those positions, and I think I want to continue to work for that."

McMann will play game No. 40 in the NHL on Monday in St. Louis. He seems determined to make the most of this opportunity. 

"He is showing that he is not going to let this one slip," Keefe noted. "Tremendous week for him and it is great to see the puck go in. He can score. We have seen that at the AHL level. He did a lot of other really good things, too, that make it hard to keep him out of the lineup."

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On a night when his team exploded for nine goals, Matthews decided to pass the team's player-of-the-game belt to someone who did not score. 

"This guy was a pest," Matthews told teammates before walking the prize over to Max Domi. "Set the tone for us right away."

Domi dropped the gloves with Ducks defenceman Radio Gudas, who was public enemy No. 1 in Toronto on Saturday. 

Gudas helped the Florida Panthers eliminate the Leafs last Spring and the burly blueliner celebrated by screaming in the face of rookie goalie Joseph Woll. This was his first time back in Toronto since then and fans booed the 33-year-old throughout the night. 

Gudas delivered a cross-check to McMann after he scored in the second period. Domi immediately jumped in and pushed Gudas. Ryan Reaves also made a point to be in Gudas' face throughout the night. 

"I thought that was excellent," said Keefe. "Because we scored so much, it is probably an understated part of the game. I thought we responded really well in that moment. It is great. I loved what Max did. I loved Reavo's presence. The attitude of our team has really changed a lot this season with those guys who have come in. I'd put Bertuzzi in there as well and [Simon] Benoit as well as Jake McCabe's presence on the back."

"That was just great," said Matthews. "A great message by those guys and that's what those guys do. They bring that intensity, that fire to the team and even Benny against his old team was rock solid for us and had some big plays, some big hits. Just the physicality aspect of that is always important."

Gudas finished the game a season worst minus-four. 

Domi missed Sunday’s practice and is considered a game-time decision for Monday's matinee. 

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Tavares returned to practice on Sunday. 

"Woke up Saturday feeling pretty good and was actually hoping to give it a go," he said. "But the medical staff wanted to make sure we're on top of things, give it a little extra time, and just trying to be on the smart side."

Tavares sustained the injury on Thursday. 

"It's something I noticed in the game partway through and didn't think anything too serious of it," the Leafs captain said. "Kind of forgot about it, actually, throughout the rest of the game. Noticed some soreness afterwards and checked in with the medical staff and followed up on Friday. Still have some of that soreness and discomfort, but really happy with the progress so far and being out there today back on the ice and with the group."

The 33-year-old centre is considered a game-time decision on Monday. 

ContentId(1.2077979): Keefe: 'Tavares among others will be a game time decision Monday'

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William Lagesson missed practice on Sunday after the defenceman sustained an upper-body injury early in the game against Anaheim. 

"He's day to day," Keefe said. "Not ruled out for tomorrow."

With the Leafs down to five defencemen and the score out of reach, Mitch Marner was asked to fill in on the back end in order to keep the minutes manageable. 

"He looked right at home back there," Matthews said with a big smile. "Just some of the plays he was making, some of the passes and stuff, it was like he was playing there his whole life. He's incredible. He does it all for us. Literally, does it all. Maybe next game he can put on the goalie gear and be back up for us, emergency goalie."

The Leafs used Marner as a defenceman at times last season, usually when they trailed late in games and were pushing for offence. 

Marner started taking shifts in the second period on Saturday. 

"In this spot, losing Lagesson as early as we did, we knew it was going to be taxing on our D,'" Keefe said. "He was happy to do so. I think he was pretty excited to do it. It brought a little something different to the game for him. He was unbelievable back there, quite honestly."

"There's no doubt why he's always talked about being in the Selke conversation," said Tavares. "So doesn't surprise me that he's able to make that transition and be called upon in a position that he's not really familiar with."

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With Lagesson hurt, Mark Giordano away from the team following the death of his father, and Morgan Rielly serving a suspension, the door may be open for Marshall Rifai to make his NHL debut. The 25-year-old Harvard product got called up on Sunday and joined the Leafs at practice. 

"He has done a really good job with the Marlies," said Keefe. "They have been really happy with his development as he has settled in here. He has some NHL attributes. He skates extremely well. He moves around the ice and closes space well. He is physical. He is a competitor. There are attributes there that you really like."

Rifai, who is from Beaconsfield, Que., has 11 points in 34 AHL games with the Marlies this season. 

"He's in tremendous shape," Tavares recalled when asked about Rifai's training camp. "His fitness is evident. His work ethic, his preparation is really elite from that aspect, and just plays a hard, intense game. He competes really hard on pucks in around net and has the ability to see the ice and make the plays when they're there."

Keefe had a chat with Rifai, who stands 6-foot, 185 pounds, at the end of Sunday's workout. 

"Just a couple pointers," Rifai revealed of the conversation. "Not to think too much. 'Enjoy it.' All good stuff."

"With the uncertainty with our defence right now, we needed an extra body," Keefe said. "The organization felt that he was the guy who made sense."

ContentId(1.2077979): Keefe: 'Tavares among others will be a game time decision Monday'

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Keefe indicated it is unlikely that Joseph Woll, who has been sidelined with a high ankle sprain since Dec. 7, will return during the four game road trip. 

"The greatest challenge of all, as we go out on this road trip, is that we don't project to have any practices this entire week," Keefe noted. "That makes it that much more challenging for a guy like him to get his reps."

Sunday marked Woll's third full practice since the injury. 

"Today's practice was an important one for him," Keefe said. "He just has to continue to work through it and get to the point where he feels comfortable and confident to be playing games."

The Leafs will play in Arizona on Wednesday, Vegas on Thursday and Colorado on Saturday. 

Martin Jones, who missed two games earlier in the week due to an undisclosed injury, did not take part in Sunday's practice. 

"Today was a scheduled day off," Keefe said. "He didn't take the day off [Friday] as the team did. He was preparing for last night's start."

Ilya Samsonov will start on Monday. 

"With Jones and Samsonov being healthy, it gives us a little extra time for Joseph to get ready," Keefe said. 

ContentId(1.2077986): Keefe: 'With Jones and Samsonov healthy it gives Woll extra time to get healthy'

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Defenceman Timothy Liljegren, who quarterbacked the top power-play unit the last two games, missed practice. In his absence, the team experimented with a five-forward. Assistant coach Guy Boucher brought together Tavares, Matthews, Nylander, Bertuzzi and Marner for some work at the end of Sunday's session.

"I don't know if that was fully scripted that way or Guy just wanted to do something there after practice," Tavares said. "We didn't talk about anything beforehand. But we've done it before so it wouldn't be a complete surprise. If that's the case, there's a lot of familiarity there and everyone's in traditional spots and we just talked about Mitchy playing defence."

The Leafs used a five-forward alignment briefly last season with Michael Bunting joining the core four forwards. 

"It is an intriguing option to manage the minutes of the defenders and also with Morgan out," said Keefe. "At the same time, the power play was pretty darn good yesterday as it was. We will keep all of that in mind."

The Leafs scored four power-play goals on Saturday with Liljegren assisting on two of the man-advantage markers. 

Toronto opted for a traditional set up on the power play in Tuesday's game against St. Louis because the Blues have an aggressive penalty kill. In that game, McCabe served as the power-play quarterback. McCabe also missed Sunday's practice. He and Liljegren are game-time decisions on Monday. 

"At this point, quite honestly, I don't have any real sense of what our lineup will look like tomorrow," Keefe admitted. 

ContentId(1.2077986): Keefe: 'With Jones and Samsonov healthy it gives Woll extra time to get healthy'

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Lines at Sunday’s practice: 

Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
McMann - Holmberg - Robertson
Gregor - Kampf - Reaves

Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - Lajoie
Rifai

Samsonov 
Woll