TORONTO — Auston Matthews has never had a run like this in the NHL.
And in the process, the Maple Leafs star helped heap more misery on a flailing opponent once again left searching for answers.
Matthews scored twice — including one on a stunning finish that materialized out of almost nothing — to extend his goal streak to a career-best seven consecutive games Saturday as Toronto thumped the Vancouver Canucks 5-1.
“I try to have the same mindset whether the puck’s going in or not,” said the 23-year-old centre, who also scored a pair in Thursday’s 7-3 victory over Vancouver, and is always more eager to talk about a teammate’s success than his own.
With the Leafs already up 1-0 in the first period, Matthews scooped up a loose puck in the offensive zone and stepped around Canucks defenceman Jalen Chatfield in the blink of an eye before roofing the puck shortside on Braden Holty to extend his streak.
“That goal … it happens so fast that I don’t think anybody on the ice was really ready for it,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Just how quickly he went from going around the defender to putting it in the net … it was impressive.
“I think in both these games we’ve played here, he could have had four or five. He was really feeling it.”
Wayne Simmonds, with two of his own, and Zach Hyman, with a goal and an assist, provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (9-2-1). Frederik Andersen, who was just over two minutes away from registering his first shutout of the season, finished with 27 saves.
Mitch Marner added three assists to extend his point streak to seven games, while Mikko Lehtonen chipped in with two more for his first two-point night in the NHL.
Toronto is now 7-0-1 over its last eight to sit atop the North Division with 19 points, one better than the Montreal Canadiens.
“We’re controlling the puck well,” Marner said. “When that’s happening, it’s a good sign from us.”
It’s also been a bad sign for Vancouver (6-9-0), which got a late goal from Brock Boeser in losing a fourth straight game in regulation this week.
“We need to expect a little more out of ourselves,” said Holtby, who made 26 stops. “As a group we need to be a whole lot better.”
Playing their league-leading 15th contest, the Canucks have now surrendered an NHL-worst 60 goals in 2020-21, and have given up at least five against nine times.
“Everything looks difficult for our team,” Vancouver head coach Travis Green said. “Simple plays look hard right now.
“It’s not coming easy, and maybe that’s a little bit of a mental thing.”
The teams play seven more times in the NHL’s abbreviated season, including Monday back inside a fan-less Scotiabank Arena because of COVID-19 protocols to wrap up this three-game set.
Looking for a spark, Green reunited the “Lotto Line” of Boeser (No. 6), Elias Pettersson (No. 40) and J.T. Miller (No. 9), while Vancouver winger Loui Eriksson _ who’s in the fifth season of albatross US$36-million, six-year contract _ made his 2020-21 debut alongside Bo Horvat and Tanner Pearson.
The Canucks, who qualified for the second round of the 2019-20 pandemic-delayed playoffs before undergoing a number off-season changes as key veterans left in free agency, were once again far from good enough versus the high-flying Leafs.
Toronto opened the scoring at 4:42 of the first when its lethal power play, which has now scored in 11 of its 12 outings, went to work. Simmonds took a pass from Marner at the side of the net and, with the cross-ice pass to Matthews taken away by a defender, instead took his time and roofed his fourth of the season in off the bar.
“I’ve seen that goal a couple times,” Marner said of the veteran winger’s finish. “It’s impressive to see it with my own eyes tonight, though.”
Simmonds then hit two posts on the same shift as Vancouver, which didn’t register a shot attempt until Justin Bailey forced a save out of Andersen almost nine minutes in, struggled to keep up.
Pettersson, who would found iron at the end of a power play late in the period, had a chance on a partial break Andersen turned aside before Matthews went to work with his ninth to extend the streak.
“He’s been playing great,” Marner said of his red-hot linemate. “When you give him time and space, it’s usually a goal.”
The Leafs then made it 3-0 at 7:36 of the second when Marner wove into the Vancouver zone and found Lehtonen, who in turn fed a great pass for Hyman to tap in his third.
The Canucks showed some life later in the period, with Andersen making a good save on Nils Hoglander. Miller then blasted a one-timer that beat the Leafs netminder, but Toronto correctly challenged for offside.
Matthews, who played second fiddle to Jason Spezza on Thursday following the veteran’s first hat trick in nearly five years, put his team up by four with his 10th at 1:28 of the third when he outraced Miller to Holtby’s clearing attempt before firing five-hole.
“Just how powerful he can be an how crafty he is, it’s fun to watch,” Andersen said. “It’s nice to see him be as dominant as he is.”
Simmonds, who left the game after taking a shot off his hand later in the period, added to Vancouver’s pain at 1:48 later when he tipped home his fifth off point shot from Lehtonen, who was inserted into the lineup with Travis Dermott (leg) out injured.
Boeser spoiled Andersen’s shutout bid when he scored his sixth on a deflection with 2:04 left in regulation on a Canucks’ man advantage.
But that could do little to sour the Leafs’ mood following another dominant performance.
“We were just consistent throughout,” Matthews said after hitting double digits in goals in his 11th game after missing one with a hand injury. “I don’t think we had any big lapses.
“We stuck with it.”
Notes: Matthews, who scored in six straight games to open the 2018-19 season, is the first Leafs players to register goals in seven consecutive contests since Wendel Clark and Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94. … Bailey dressed for the first time this season for Vancouver. … The Leafs wore their Reverse Retro jerseys at home for the first time.