Auston Matthews’ hat trick puts exclamation point on slump-busting effort

Auston Matthews recorded a hat trick and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the New Jersey Devils.

TORONTO – If Blake Coleman scores a hat trick in Toronto, does it make a sound?

Unfortunately, not if Auston Matthews also scores one — his first in 1,190 nights, his first at home, and his first-ever three-goal performance, full stop.

Years before the moustache, Matthews spun the hockey world on its ear with an NHL debut for the ages, hanging four goals on the unsuspecting Ottawa Senators on Oct. 12, 2016.

You wouldn’t have believed it had you not seen it. And had you seen it, you wouldn’t believe it would take that same player 27(!) consecutive two-goal efforts before finally finding the net thrice in one evening.

“Yeah, it’s pretty funny. We’ve actually talked about it a couple of times,” said Mitch Marner, who set up his centreman for a tip and an easy one-timer before Matthews potted an unassisted empty-netter. “I’m sure that’s a big relief to him, to get that one off his shoulders, for sure.”

While the Maple Leafs’ 7-4 running of poor Coleman’s New Jersey Devils Tuesday might later be remembered as Rasmus Sandin’s coming-out party, Matthews’ long-awaited hat trick put an emphatic exclamation point on a necessary slump-busting effort.

There is symmetry here: AM34 scored his 34th goal of the season on the Leafs’ 34th shot of the game.

Not long after the caps rained in celebration, littering the Scotiabank Arena ice past Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” and through Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations,” Matthews shrugged at the abnormal gap between hat tricks.

“I mean, I figured get one some time,” he said.

Scoring goals, which Matthews openly craves, has become second nature. (Yet the empty-netter freebie has eluded him. Tuesday’s was only his second since joining the league.)

The Leafs lead the other 30 clubs, piling up 3.66 per night, a rate that has spiked since Sheldon Keefe took the helm.

And Matty’s hatty jumps him within two goals of hunting down David Pastrnak (36) for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy race.

On this eve, Matthews’ production was less the result of a singular performance, like the show he orchestrated last week versus Winnipeg, and more a continuation of a trend.

The man has averaged a goal per game in his past 18 outings.

“Good to see him get rewarded… it’s a big one,” said winger Zach Hyman. “We were joking about, ‘I think you may have a record for two-goal games before your second hat trick.’ ”

It’s been 12 years since a shooter “suffered” so many two-goal games between hat tricks.

(Since 1990, Mark Recchi has the longest such streak, with 32 two-goal games between hat tricks from 1991 to 1996. Most recently, Owen Nolan had 29 two-goal games between hatties from 1999 to 2008.)

While Keefe continues to experiment with his other three lines — Tuesday he tried Pierre Engvall up with John Tavares and William Nylander to help jolt their backchecking — Matthews has settled into himself a groove between Hyman and Marner, and the results have been spectacular.

All three are piling up points in the O-zone and limiting opponents’ time in the D-zone.

Despite going head-to-head with Nico Hischier’s top line Tuesday, Matthews & Co. tilted the ice, owning 65 per cent of the shot attempts and putting forth the type of defensive effort that will be critical in front of a depleted blue line.

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“As a unit, we thought we controlled the puck really well and didn’t give up a lot of opportunities on the rush,” Marner said.

In spite of his fetish for tinkering, Keefe knows not to fiddle with chemistry where he’s found it.

“I really like what we see from that trio with Matthews,” Keefe said. “It makes sense to me in a lot of ways, in terms of the way one sees the ice and passes and the way one finishes. But Mitch and [Hyman] were very successful with John there as well. We have to weigh that and, again, it has a lot to do with how things fall into place underneath them.”

On Thursday against Calgary, Matthews will look to build on the ice all those caps landed. In 23 home dates this season, he has recorded an incredible 27 goals (and 39 points), and, finally, three in one go.

“They made some unbelievable plays to feed me the puck tonight,” Matthews said. “I just tried to put it in.”

Easy as 1-2-3.

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