After he scored his third goal of the game, there were no hats thrown at Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza.
The smiles and a water shower from his teammates fulfilled his satisfaction.
“The puck was following me around and that hasn’t happened a lot the last couple of years,” Spezza said.
The Maple Leafs trounced the Vancouver Canucks 7-3 at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday. With four days of rest and time to work on their game, the Maple Leafs thoroughly dominated a team that just completed their league-leading 14th contest.
In a twist of irony, Spezza, a player who elects to take part in optional morning skates, made the biggest impact.
“I’m a guy that likes to keep the engine running,” Spezza said. “I’m a guy that goes by a lot of feel, so I like to get on the ice. For me, it’s just routine so it helps me focus for the night.”
Spezza recorded the eighth hat trick of his career and his first in four years and 10 months. The 37-year-old, who still has some unfinished business with his hometown team, was placed on waivers two weeks ago as the team looked for some roster flexibility after an injury to forward Nick Robertson.
There was never a risk to losing the veteran after his camp reportedly made it clear he’d retire if claimed. But Spezza was scratched for one game this season. The trio of Travis Boyd, Pierre Engvall and Joey Anderson “set the standard” of what head coach Sheldon Keefe was looking for from his fourth line in a 4-3 win against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 26.
Against the Canucks, Spezza logged a season-high 12:17 of ice time and scored three goals. Although the shuffling may continue on the fourth line, it’s clear Spezza’s spot is locked in.
“He means a lot to this team, I think more than anybody knows,” Auston Matthews said. “That was fun to watch. That was vintage Jason Spezza. He put on a show, and he deserves it.”
Matthews scored twice and extended his goal-scoring streak to six games. Both goals came at even strength and on delayed penalty calls to the Canucks.
“I think coming off the four-day break, we came out and had a really good start,” Matthews said. “It seemed like we had good legs throughout the whole game.”
John Tavares and Mitch Marner also had goals for Toronto.
The Leafs dominated the Canucks from start to finish. Although Vancouver responded with goals when Toronto jumped out to 2-0 and 3-1 leads, the Leafs pulled away with three unanswered goals, capped by Spezza’s third tally of the night at 4:34 of the second period.
Vancouver’s sluggish start was understandable given Toronto’s lengthy rest in their schedule. Despite being down to Toronto 10-0 in slot shots on net and 5-0 in scoring chances off the rush, Vancouver was down by just one goal after 20 minutes.
In the second period, Toronto pulled away as the slot shots on net favoured the Maple Leafs 17-3 after 40 minutes.
“We looked like a tired team tonight,” Canucks coach Travis Green said. “They’re a good team. When you’re a step off, they can make you look like we did tonight.”
Toronto finished the night with 17 scoring chances off the rush compared to just six from Vancouver.
Spezza’s first goal of the night was on the power-play. Toronto has 10 power-play goals in 11 games this season.
The Leafs improved to 8-2-1 to claim top spot in the North Division. They have defeated all six of their opponents at least once with less than one-fifth of the regular season completed.
Against the Canucks, the Leafs put forth their most complete effort and defeated an opponent by more than two goals for the first time this season.
“I thought it was the best we’ve looked in terms of how we left our zone and how we got into the neutral zone and how quickly we moved the puck,” Keefe said. “When you take a break like we had and you reflect and regroup, you’re expecting progress and I was happy the guys came out and executed.”
The Leafs played much of the game with just five defensemen. Travis Dermott left the game in the first period with a leg injury.
“It looks pretty minor,” Keefe said. “It’s just a Charly Horse.”
Nic Petan made his regular-season debut and picked up a second assist on Spezza’s second goal.
The Maple Leafs host the Canucks for the second of three consecutive games on Saturday. If they find ways to continue the pace of play exhibited on Thursday, it’ll be hard to paint a picture of any other team passing them for the top spot in the North Division.
“The greatest challenge throughout this whole schedule is to beat the same team in back-to-back games,” Keefe said. “It’s important for us to not take our foot off the gas.”