TORONTO — Jason Spezza recorded the eighth hat trick of his career — and first in nearly five years — as the Toronto Maple Leafs dismantled the Vancouver Canucks 7-3 on Thursday night.
Auston Matthews, with two, Mitch Marner, with a goal and a pair of assists, and John Tavares provided the rest of the offence for Toronto (8-2-1), which got 16 saves from Frederik Andersen.
William Nylander added three assists, while Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin and Travis Boyd chipped in with two each for the Leafs in the opener of a three-game set between the North Division rivals.
In the twilight of his career at age 37, but an important part of head coach Sheldon Keefe’s setup as a veteran presence, Spezza’s last three-goal performance came April 9, 2016, when he was with the Dallas Stars.
J.T. Miller, with a goal and an assist, Tanner Pearson and Bo Horvat replied for Vancouver (6-8-0). Thatcher Demko stopped 30 shots as the Canucks dropped their third straight in regulation this week.
The teams play eight more times in the NHL’s abbreviated 56-game season, including Saturday and Monday back at Scotiabank Arena.
Coming off a welcome four-day break following a 3-0-1 swing through Alberta, the Leafs opened the scoring when Matthews went end-to-end on a delayed Vancouver penalty before beating Demko between the pads for his seventh of the campaign — and sixth in as many games — at 2:56 of the first.
The Canucks, who came in on the heels of back-to-back losses to the Canadiens in Montreal following four straight wins, tied it up at 6:24 when Pearson scored his fourth as one of three Vancouver players allowed to bang away at the puck at the side of Andersen’s net.
Toronto’s top-ranked power play then went to work midway through the period, and Spezza blasted his second through a Zach Hyman screen past Demko for a 2-1 lead through 20 minutes.
The Leafs, who were down to five defencemen for the final two periods after Travis Dermott left with a leg injury, went up by two at 3:04 of the second when Matthews took a reverse feed from Mitch Marner behind Vancouver’s net that fooled Demko to bury his eighth. But the Canucks responded just 22 seconds later when Horvat fired his sixth off a cross-ice pass from Miller to make it 3-2.
Toronto restored its two-goal lead at 8:44 when Spezza received a slick saucer pass off the rush from Nic Petan, who made his 2020-21 debut, and fired upstairs on Demko for his first two-goal game since Jan. 16, 2018, with Dallas.
Playing their league-leading 14th game to open the season, the Canucks couldn’t keep up with the well-rested Leafs and went down 5-2 with 2:04 left in the second when Nylander found Tavares on Demko’s doorstep for the Toronto captain’s fifth.
Spezza completed his hat trick at 4:34 of the third by turning back the clock once again and stepping around Vancouver defenceman Alexander Edler off the rush before sweeping his fourth beyond Demko that, if not for COVID-19 protocols keeping fans away from Scotiabank Arena, would have seen fans litter the ice with hats.
The Canucks got one back on a power play at 8:14 when Miller beat Andersen with his third of the season, but Marner made it 7-3 with his sixth of the year at 11:37.
Toronto’s Wayne Simmonds and Vancouver’s Jordie Benn dropped the gloves in a spirited fight with three minutes left, setting the table for the rematch in less than 48 hours.
Thursday’s game featured changes to both the arena and players’ routines after the NHL revised its COVID-19 protocols with five U.S.-based teams currently sitting idle.
The glass behind the benches has been removed for better air flow, players and coaches aren’t allowed inside arenas until one hour 45 minutes before puck drop unless they’re receiving treatment for injuries, and all team meetings must be held virtually.
Notes: Three of Vancouver’s six wins have come against the rebuilding Ottawa Senators. … Leafs assistant coach Manny Malhotra was in Vancouver’s lineup the last time Canucks won in Toronto on Dec. 17, 2011.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press