Maple Leafs vs. Flyers observations: Auston Matthews reaches 45 goals with a hat trick

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Toronto Maple Leafs took advantage of a Auston Matthews hat trick and picked up a 4-3 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday. The Leafs got off to a weak start, as Toronto’s second power-play unit fell asleep and gave up a short-handed goal eight minutes in. John Tortorella’s team played excellent defensively, as the vast majority of Toronto’s eight shots in the first period were of the low-danger variety.

The start of the second period wasn’t much better. The Leafs got lucky, as William Lagesson got away with a high-sticking infraction that should have resulted in a five-on-three power play, and Matthew Knies got away with another one shortly after. Everything changed at the halfway point, as Matthews took over and recorded a hat trick in a span of less than eight minutes in the second period.

The Leafs blew the two-goal lead in the third, and a pair of offensive-zone penalties from Noah Gregor and Tyler Bertuzzi were a major reason why. However, they wouldn’t let another Matthews hat trick go to waste, as Timothy Liljegren set up William Nylander for an overtime winner.

Three stars

1. Auston Matthews

Like most of his teammates, Matthews didn’t create many chances in the first half of the game. A switch seemed to flip just past the halfway point, as Mitch Marner found him with a stretch pass, and Matthews showed off his patented wrist shot to tie the game.

Just two minutes later, he drew a penalty to send his team to the power play. He then teamed up with Marner for the second time in just over three minutes to give the Leafs the lead.

He completed the hat trick with his third goal in eight minutes just before the period expired.


2. Mitch Marner

Marner had three of his team’s eight shots in the first, and he picked up a primary assist on each of Matthews’ first two goals in the second period. His first assist was a heads-up stretch pass to catch the Flyers on a change, and his second put the puck on a tee for a one-timer. He made another excellent play to set up Matthews for a deflection in the third, and while it wasn’t meant to be, he did find a way to pick up a secondary assist in overtime.

3. Timothy Liljegren

Liljegren is being asked to play a much larger role during Morgan Rielly’s absence, and he stepped up in a major way. He led the Leafs in ice time through two periods, and he rewarded his coach’s trust with a primary assist just before the second intermission. Liljegren made an excellent play to keep the puck in at the blue line, and he promptly found Toronto’s best goal-scorer in the slot. Liljegren earned the second shift in overtime, and capitalized by rushing the puck up the ice and setting up Nylander for the win.


Auston Matthews is a cheat code

Matthews scored his 43rd, 44th and 45th goals of the season and it’s only February 15! It’s an absolute treat to watch him on a nightly basis, and just when you think he can’t get any better, he finds a way to impress yet again. The Flyers were disciplined defensively, but somehow it made little difference. If you can set up Matthews for a chance in the slot, it sure feels like it’s going in every time.

Matthews just missed on a deflection to start the third, and he came close again on a power play a few minutes later. Toronto’s win against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday was a nice reminder that their depth forwards can step up and contribute to a win, but tonight was all about their superstar centre. He’s big, fast, skilled, the best goal-scorer on the planet, and a high-end defensive player.

The Flyers completely shut down the Leafs in the first half

The Flyers held a 19-11 shot advantage at the halfway point, and it was easy to see why Tortorella is already being pencilled in as a Jack Adams Award finalist. Philadelphia’s players were simply outworking Toronto’s, and it seemed like their defensive structure was unbreakable. It felt as though the Leafs had four shots rather than 11, and Toronto’s power play was dreadful.

Toronto looked like a completely different team than the one we saw on Tuesday night against the Blues, and you could hear a pin drop at Scotiabank Arena. The third line of Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and Nick Robertson was terrible. Watching his second power-play unit surrender a short-handed goal surely had Sheldon Keefe fuming.

Fortunately, while the Leafs were outplayed early, they did well to keep Philadelphia’s five-on-five chances to the outside. Competent defensive play kept the deficit at one goal, and bought time until Matthews took over. Morgan Rielly is set to appeal his suspension in New York on Friday, and while his team would like him back as soon as possible, Keefe will be happy with how the other defenders have stepped up. Liljegren had two assists, Jake McCabe was an absolute menace yet again, and Simon Benoit threw this massive hit:

Game score

Final grade: B

This game was a bit of a roller coaster, as the Leafs struggled in the first half, dominated in the middle portion and then blew a two-goal lead. This grade would obviously be much lower if you excluded Matthews, as Toronto looked like some of the Edmonton Oilers teams from previous seasons that did not always have a ton of depth behind their superstar centre. Bobby McMann carried his confidence over from his hat-trick performance against the Blues, but it was a quiet evening for secondary scorers like Matthew Knies, Domi, Bertuzzi and Robertson. The Flyers played fairly well, but Toronto’s star power was simply too much to handle in the end.

What’s next for the Leafs?

Staying at home to play Radko Gudas and the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday at 7 p.m. on Hockey Night in Canada.

(Photo of Auston Matthews and Timothy Liljegren: Kevin Sousa / NHLI via Getty Images)

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