Of course it's preferential treatment. And if you scan the last month or two of Matt's comments they are general in nature and not specific as in:
"I think I know what the problem is; we're detecting HN as a dead page. It's unclear whether this happened on the HN side or on Google's side, but I'm pinging the right people to ask whether we can get this fixed pretty quickly."
You don't think "pinging the right people" and "get this fixed pretty quickly" is preferential treatment?
Answering people's individual questions doesn't scale to the entire Internet, so Google really has no choice but to address problems on a case-by-case basis. In this case, Matt reads HN and personally wants to solve the problem. That's the only way Google could possibly work, so that's how they do it.
Yet here, a website owner is purposely blocking the crawler and they jump with solutions to try to fix the problem. Sigh.