Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews waits for play to...

Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews waits for play to resume in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Denver. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

TORONTO — As his team readied to face the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena, coach Peter Laviolette was asked how the Rangers planned to defend Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, the league’s leading goal-scorer.

“We were hoping he had the flu,’’ Laviolette said at the Rangers’ optional morning skate.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, Matthews was not ill. He was in the lineup against a Blueshirts team that was unable to contain him in their first two games this season.

Matthews, whose 53 goals were 11 more than the league’s second-best goal-scorer (Florida’s Sam Reinhart), had two goals in each of his first two games against the Rangers this season. He totaled four goals and two assists in those games.

Matthews already has six hat tricks this season. “Yeah, he’s a guy that just finds ways to score goals,’’ Laviolette said. “I mean, he scores them from everywhere. [But it’s] not just about him. It’s about their team. They’ve got other good players, too. They’re high-octane. And so we’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play good defense. Keep things in check, keep things in front of us and then defend well.’’

Defenseman K’Andre Miller said: “That type of shot [Matthews has] is so lethal from anywhere, so just try to take away as much time as you can and make it hard on him.’’

Miller was one of only eight players to take part in the optional morning skate as the Rangers played their second-to-last game before the NHL trade deadline (3 p.m. Friday).

After Saturday’s game, the Blueshirts will play Florida on Monday at the Garden. Then they will wait to see if general manager Chris Drury makes any deals to fortify the roster.

The Rangers entered Saturday at 40-17-3 and sitting in third place overall in the league standings, five points ahead of Carolina at the top of the Metropolitan Division. They are legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup and figure to be actively involved in seeking reinforcements for the playoffs.

They are believed to be looking for a third-line center and a right wing to play with No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad and left wing Chris Kreider.

Laviolette, who recently elevated Kaapo Kakko from the third line to play with Zibanejad and Kreider, was asked if there is a chance in these last two games for someone to play well enough to change Drury’s mind about what the team actually does or does not need.

“Right now my mind is on the Toronto Maple Leafs and how we can keep Matthews in check and keep their offense in check and win a hockey game up here in Toronto,’’ he said. “That’s where I’m at right now. And so we’ve got a job to do . . . And so we worry about the things that we can control.’’

The thing they were hoping to control was to continue to play the kind of defense they played in February, when they went 10-1.

Toronto (34-17-8 entering Saturday, and 8-1 in its previous nine games) was fourth in the league in goals with 220.

Matthews, who had 78 points, was second in scoring for the Leafs behind William Nylander, who had 82 points (32 goals, 50 assists). Mitch Marner, with 23 goals and 50 assists, gave Toronto three players with at least 70 points.

The Rangers were fifth in the league in fewest goals allowed (164). Goaltender Igor Shesterkin, after a largely up-and-down season and a mostly down January (4-5-1, 3.25 goals-against average and .863 save percentage), was playing his best hockey of the season coming into Saturday. He went 7-0 with a 1.72 goals-against average and .953 save percentage in February.

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