Behind Auston Matthews’ creative hat trick: ‘He’s more hungry’

Auston Matthews scores a hat trick and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens.

Mike Babcock and frenemy head coach Claude Julien spoke to each other on the phone prior to Monday’s exhibition match at Ricoh Coliseum and made a gentlemen’s agreement.

Both bench bosses would ice an NHL-calibre linuep in order to get a truer evaluation of the Maple Leafs and Canadiens talent. (Montreal centre Jonathan Drouin and No. 1 goalie Carey Price did not play.)

We quickly learned that Auston Matthews is more than ready to play for real. Winger William Nylander, too.

“We did some good things tonight,” said Matthews, ever modest, after a four-point showing in the 5-1 victory. Nylander sniped one himself and set up two of Matthews’ goals.

“We both want to create offence; we don’t want to spend time in the D-zone. That was a big key for us last year: learning how to play defence so we have the puck more. It’s worked out. It got better and better as the season went on last year, and we want to continue that.”

Fun fact: Monday marked the first three-goal night of Matthews’ Maple Leafs tenure. You may recall that No. 34 debuted with a four-goal performance in 2016-17, but despite five two-goal outings in his Calder campaign, he never had another hat trick.

Matthews now has four goals and two assists through three pre-season games. Yes, Monday’s game was just for show, but what a show.

“It’s always fun,” Matthews said after his first-star twirl. “I don’t think it ever gets old, scoring goals.”

Let’s break down three pretty goals scored in three pretty different ways.

GOAL 1: THE STUN RAY
With the Ricoh ice still wet, Matthews transitions from the defensive zone on a Leo Komarov pass and darts into the Canadiens’ zone alone with two defenders and a goalie to beat.

Turning backtracking Shea Weber into a screen — a technique he’s specifically practised — Matthews quickly wrists a shot 47 seconds into the first period. The pucks zips past Weber’s left and Al Montoya‘s right.

His skates seemingly in mud, Montoya doesn’t even flinch.

PATRICK MARLEAU: “It goes to show the transition game we have is pretty good. Auston’s line, they’re really good at that. Everybody else has to chip in as well.”

ZACH HYMAN: “The first goal, he used the defenceman as a screen. I don’t think Montoya saw it at all. He released the puck so quickly, Montoya didn’t see it through the defender.”

FREDERIK ANDERSEN: “He definitely understands he has to play both sides of the puck. Some of the scoring opportunities he gets come from that. He’s a really mature player. Great shot as well.”

AUSTON MATTHEWS: “It’s a tough play: one-on-two, we’re getting a [line] change. Maybe he didn’t see the puck. There was a bit of screen there, and I was able to sneak one past. Kind of a lucky shot, I guess.”

GOAL 2: THE CIRCUS CATCH
Roughly four minutes later, Nylander intercepts a poor Torrey Mitchell centring pass and one-touches it to Matthews’ blade as the centre streaks in, dangles between his feet, and backhand passes it back to Nylander.

Nyander’s shot is stopped, but the puck flips skyward. As Matthews circles the net, he spots the puck, slams the brakes and punches the airborne puck into a gaping cage with the back of his blade.

MATTHEWS: “I thought Willie scored. I just looked up and the puck was in the air. A lot of bodies in front of the net. Marty [Matt Martin] did a good job taking two guys with him. It popped out and I shovelled it in. It was a full line effort.”

CLAUDE JULIEN: “When you make mistakes like that against a team like the Leafs, they’re going to make you pay for it. They capitalized on every chance they had.”

WILLIAM NYLANDER:
“You can always get a sense when he’s going, but it feels like he’s going every game.”

MATTHEWS: “[Nylander] has got excellent vision, his skating’s incredible. I try to get open for him, and he does the same. We try to complement each other, and we want to score goals.”

GOAL 3: THE BREAKAWAY
Early in the third frame, Nylander strips Habs defenceman Jordie Benn in the neutral zone and, again, immediately dishes to Matthews.

Auston taps speed burst through the Montreal blue line, feigns with his upper body, and beats Montoya between the legs.

MATTHEWS: “We caught them on a change, and Willie made a really nice pass to me. I was able to sneak another one by [Montoya] on a breakaway. It was a really nice play by Willie to take the puck away from their defender, and it worked out pretty well.”

HYMAN: “Not even on his goals, you saw Matty stick-lifting guys from behind. Same thing with Willie. Willie stick-lifted a guy from behind and caused a turnover and sent Auston on a break. It’s the little things that lead to the goals that not a lot of people notice, but they’re doing them well, and they’re doing it in pre-season. A good sign.”

JULIEN: “That’s breakdowns. I wouldn’t necessarily call that speed. I think we made some bad mistakes. Matthews’ breakaway isn’t speed; it’s more our D giving [away] the puck. They got skill, they got speed. They’re a young team.”

HYMAN: “The third goal, he gave a little head fake, then went five hole. He’s that type of player. If he has scoring chances, he’s going to score on them.”

ANDERSEN: “He’s hungry to get it back once he no longer has it on his stick. He likes having it on his stick; he’s good with it. The maturity of his play, the quicker he can get back on offence, the better. He definitely feels comfortable. He’s more hungry. Hungry to be better.”