Leafs vs. Jets: Auston Matthews back in peak form as Toronto rolls to victory

Last year's Hart Trophy winner was back to his dominant self as the Maple Leafs easily handled the Jets.

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) and goaltender Ilya Samsonov (35) celebrate their win over the Winnipeg Jets (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

TORONTO — Expectations often have a way of distorting reality and the idea that Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews was having a sub-standard year, relative to the stratospheric standard he’s set for himself, seemed downright foolish.

If you needed a reminder, Matthews showed why he’s the most explosive goal-scorer in the NHL, depositing a brace in rapid succession and you had to feel bad for those stuck in the beer line coming out of the first intermission. The Winnipeg Jets largely controlled the first period and were it not for Toronto’s Ilya Samsonov submitting his best performance of the early calendar year, this very well could’ve been a different result.

Matthews exemplified a renewed sense of urgency, dipping around the Jets’ defence with some nifty moves, before roofing it past Winnipeg’s star goalie Connor Hellebuyck eight seconds into the second frame. From there onwards, there was no looking back for the Maple Leafs, as Matthews recorded his second goal of the contest three minutes later, Mitch Marner added a spectacular insurance marker on the penalty kill, Mark Giordano notched an empty-net tally and Toronto breezed to a 4-1 victory.

Here’s what you need to know from Thursday’s Maple Leafs-Jets game:

Three stars:

1. Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

Matthews changed the imprint of the game by scoring eight seconds into the second period, erasing a first period where his line was the only productive unit for the Maple Leafs. There has been a school of thought that Matthews has underperformed, despite boasting superior underlying stats, while playing the most sound defensive hockey of his career.

“I loved how Auston went out and took charge of the game in the second period,” Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said post-game.

He outright dominated Thursday with nine individual scoring chances at 5-on-5, winning 50 percent of his faceoffs, posting three shot blocks and narrowly missing on a golden chance to record a natural hat trick after Michael Bunting set him up with a perfect feed.

Winnipeg almost added a second goal almost seven minutes into the third period, but Matthews got on his knees in the slot and flushed away the danger. It was an all-around terrific performance from the reigning Hart Trophy winner, who was added to the All-Star roster post-game.

2. Ilya Samsonov, Maple Leafs

Marner and Bunting could’ve easily found themselves among the three stars but with some consternation about the Maple Leafs’ goaltending regressing, Samsonov stepped up to the plate and kept his team in the contest during the first period. He responded to every test he faced and though Toronto was proficient offensively from the minute Matthews roofed the opening goal, it wasn’t a clean defensive performance. Samsonov received a brief ovation from the Scotiabank Arena crowd in the second period and he more than deserved it. He almost single-handedly killed off a 5-on-3 in the third period, before Kyle Connor eventually got the Jets on the board.

It wasn’t clear until the end of the morning skate whether Samsonov or Matt Murray would get the start Thursday. The 25-year-old certainly earned it with 37 saves. He’s now 12-0-1 at Scotiabank Arena this season.

3. William Nylander, Maple Leafs

Nylander was the best player during the first period and, in tandem with Matthews and Bunting, revitalized the Maple Leafs after a choppy start. He is a walking scoring chance at this rate and was zipping around the ice, making it nearly impossible for the Jets to account for Matthews in peak form. Nylander has posted games with better underlying numbers, and we considered putting Marner and Bunting in this space, but the edge goes to the 26-year-old for his off-puck movement, constant pace and creativity.

Off night: Mark Scheifele, Jets

This was a night Scheifele will soon want to forget. He got walked by Matthews during the game’s opening goal, then committed the turnover that directly led to Marner’s insurance marker. Scheifele otherwise wasn’t horrible, but if you make two mistakes that immediately lead to goals at critical junctures of the contest, this becomes an easy choice.

Play of the game:

We’ve discussed this goal in great detail already, given that it was the turning point but we haven’t discussed the aesthetics and my God, it was gorgeous. Morgan Rielly banks a pass off the boards, Bunting flicks it onto Matthews’ stick and the rest is pure magic.

Matthews turned Scheifele into a pylon and with Nylander in excellent position to receive the pass, Brenden Dillon had no chance but to block off the potential lane, allowing Toronto’s superstar to roof it home. It was the best play of the night during one of Matthews’ best games of the season.

Here’s a slow-motion angle, too.

Misplay of the game:

In some ways, this is subject to interpretation. Marner made an excellent read to seal off the wall, stole the puck and then ripped home a beautiful goal in his own right. But that also doesn’t excuse the terrible route Scheifele took and after losing the puck, he took a circuitous loop, allowing Marner to take full advantage of the lack of urgency and deposit a laser for the shorthanded marker. This play, in many respects, encapsulates Scheifele’s forgettable evening.

Stat of the night:

Don’t blink when the Maple Leafs are playing. This is an offensive juggernaut capable of scoring at a moment’s notice and some fans may have missed one of the best plays of the game.

Going viral:

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Santiago Espinal, Chris Bassitt and Kevin Kiermaier of the Toronto Blue Jays showed up to show the Maple Leafs some support. Vladdy, in particular, received a rousing ovation from the crowd and seemed stoked to support his neighbours Thursday evening.

Quote of the day:

Keefe’s observations on Matthews’ dominant performance:

“I noticed the puck hit the mesh…obviously, it’s probably the game that looks closest to him last year in terms of the way the puck went in the net.”

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