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Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Philadelphia Flyers during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Feb. 15, 2024.Arlyn McAdorey/The Canadian Press

The mad hatter struck again

Auston Matthews scored three goals for the fifth time this season on Thursday to help Toronto to a 4-3 overtime victory over the Philadelphia Flyers at Scotiabank Arena.

His hat trick came in the second period – one after another, after another and another – in a span of less than eight minutes. It tied a franchise record for three-goal games in a season – and left him on pace for 70 over the 2023-24 campaign.

At this rate, he will keep milliners busy all over the GTA. The last players in the NHL to score 70 goals were Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny. Each had 76 in 1992-93.

It is something that the Great 8, Alexander Ovechkin, has never accomplished. Only eight players have done it – Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Mario Lemieux on multiple occasions. It’s pretty rarefied air.

“He is the best goal scorer in the league,” William Nylander said. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Matthews now has 45 goals in 51 games and leads Sam Reinhart of the Florida Panthers by six. Matthews’s career high is 60 goals over 73 games in 2021-22. That stands as the franchise record.

“We know by now that he is an exceptional player,” said Sheldon Keefe, the head coach. “The year he got 60 he went on a tear at the end of the season. At this point, it seems he has been playing at that level all season. It is exceptional. There is not much else to say.”

Toronto plays Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks. It is the final outing in a three-game homestand after back-to-back wins over the Blues and Flyers. On Tuesday the Maple Leafs begin a four-game trip during which they will meet St. Louis, travel to Arizona on Wednesday, Las Vegas on Thursday and Colorado on Saturday.

The last two triumphs have come with Morgan Rielly absent from the lineup as he serves a five-game suspension. The team’s best defenceman filed an appeal and met in New York on Friday with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

Rielly was suspended for the first time in his 11-year-career after he delivered a cross check to the head of Ottawa’s Ridly Greig on Feb. 10. The commissioner seldom reduces a suspension in an aggressor’s favour.

Toronto hoped, however, that Rielly’s lack of any other such incidents might cause Bettman to adjust the penalty imposed by the league’s player-safety officials.

The Maple Leafs enter the weekend with a 28-16-8 record and in fourth place in the Atlantic Division. They trail the Panthers and Boston Bruins by 10 points each, but are just one point behind Tampa Bay. The Lightning has also played three more games than Toronto.

Matthews didn’t speak to his accomplishment Thursday evening and the team had a day off on Friday.

“We just want to keep building positive momentum going forward,” he said. “These are really important games for us.”

There are 30 games remaining in the regular season and Toronto and four other teams in the division are battling for a spot in the playoffs.

They will need Rielly back and Matthews to continue his run.

On Thursday the Maple Leafs trailed 1-0 until he scored three quick goals.

“He was a beast for us in the second period,” Keefe said. “There is a just a comfort level there.”

Teammates say he does these things so often that they almost expect it.

“I am kind of used to it now,” said defenceman Timothy Liljegren.

Ilya Samsonov just enjoys watching Matthews from the safety of the Toronto net.

“I haven’t been surprised by what he does for a long time now,” Samsonov said.

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