The man teammates call “Vintage” turned back the clock with a stunning performance Thursday.
The rest of the Maple Leafs looked pretty good, too.
Jason Spezza recorded his eighth-career hat trick – and first in nearly five years – as Toronto dismantled the road-weary Vancouver Canucks 7-3.
The 37-year-old’s role since signing with his hometown team prior to last season is a far cry from when he entered the league as a dominant centre picked No. 2 at the 2001 NHL draft by the Ottawa Senators. But he’s endeared himself to the Leafs’ young core as a veteran presence, sounding board and solid contributor capable of moving up and down the lineup.
“He means a lot to this team, I think more than anybody knows,” Auston Matthews said after taking a back seat with his two-goal night. “That was fun to watch. That was vintage Jason Spezza. He put on a show. He deserves it. He works so hard.
“At this stage in his career, the dedication that he pours into his own game, into the team … to see a guy like him get rewarded and put on a show like he did, that was pretty incredible.”
Spezza scored to give Toronto a 2-1 lead in the first period and a 4-2 edge in the second before completing his first hat trick since April 9, 2016, when he was a member of the Dallas Stars in the third.
The only thing missing was an ice surface littered with hats inside an fanless Scotiabank Arena because of COVID-19 protocols.
“I got a bit of a water shower walking in the room, the guys got me good,” Spezza said. “The puck was following me. I haven’t had too many of those nights the last couple years.”
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.
Spezza has made close to US$90 million during his career, but the fire still burns bright for a player earning the league minimum the last two years as he continues searching for hockey’s ultimate prize.
“The game’s been good to me,” he said. “I’m still chasing the Cup. That’s what keeps me driving. Just coming to the rink and being part of a team, I don’t think you ever replicate the bond you have with teammates. There’s ups and downs and trials and tribulations, but you always have each other’s back.
“That’s pretty special stuff. You don’t get that unless you’re playing.”
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.
“It’s disappointing,” Horvat said. “I’m not going to sugar-coat it. We weren’t good enough.”
“It sucks,” Miller added. “Giving up seven … it’s kind of unacceptable.”
Thursday featured changes to both the arena and players’ routines after the NHL revised its coronavirus rules with five U.S.-based teams currently sitting idle.
The glass behind the benches was removed for better air flow, players and coaches aren’t allowed inside the building until one hour and 45 minutes before puck drop unless they’re receiving treatment for injuries, and all team meetings must be held virtually.
“I get (to the rink) pretty early, so the guys gave me a hard time I’ve been doing it wrong all these years,” Spezza joked. “We talked at the start of the year there was going to be changes, there’s going to be adapting.
“It didn’t faze us.”
The Leafs and Canucks 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, Toronto opened the scoring when Matthews went end-to-end on a delayed 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, tied it up at 6:24 when Pearson scored his fourth.
That’s when Spezza started to take over.
The Leafs’ top-ranked power play went to work midway through the period, and he blasted his second through a screen for a 2-1 lead through 20 minutes.
Down to five defencemen for the final two periods after Travis Dermott left with a leg injury, Toronto went up by two at 3:04 of the second when Matthews took a reverse feed from 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.
The Leafs restored their two-goal lead at 8:44 when Spezza received a slick saucer pass from Nic Petan, who suited up for a game for the first time 11 months because of the pandemic, and fired upstairs for his first two-goal showing since Jan. 16, 2018.
“He can’t take a day off the ice,” Matthews said of what he admires about Spezza. “We have days off, he still goes in there. He skates, prepares sticks, prepares his gear. He’ll do whatever. He just loves being at the rink.
“At this stage of his career, to see the dedication and the passion he has for the game day in, day out, it’s just incredible.”
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 for the Toronto captain’s fifth.
Spezza completed his hat trick at 4:34 of the third by stepping around Vancouver defenceman Alexander Edler before sweeping his fourth beyond Demko.
“That’s vintage Spezz right there,” Marner said. “Some of those shots and goals and moves he’s making, it’s vintage.”
The Canucks got one back on a power play at 8:14 when Miller beat Andersen with his third, but Marner made it 7-3 with his sixth 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.
“We’re a rested team playing against a very tired team that’s had a very tough schedule,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I expected us to be really good, make it hard on Vancouver.
“Of course the challenge here now is to regroup and do it again.”