TORONTO — John Tavares will be out of the Maple Leafs’ lineup indefinitely, but he’s fully expecting his teammates to forge ahead without him.
That was the message Tavares began delivering Thursday night from the confines of a hospital room. The Leafs’ captain suffered a concussion midway through the first period of Game 1 in Toronto’s first-round playoff series against Montreal. Canadiens’ defenceman Ben Chiarot hit Tavares to the ice, and then winger Corey Perry’s knee accidentally collided with Tavares’ head.
Tavares had to be stretchered off the ice and spent the night in hospital. He was discharged Friday morning, and coach Sheldon Keefe confirmed the 30-year-old centre’s concussion diagnosis.
The Leafs are a long way from forgetting the grisly scene that unfolded for Tavares. But after losing 2-1 in Game 1, they have been bolstered by Tavares’ support and encouragement for them to press on in Saturday’s Game 2.
“There's a pit in your stomach; it’s sickening to see somebody lie on the ice like that,” said Jason Spezza on Tavares' injury after Friday’s brief practice wrapped up. “Especially John; he's so in control and to see him be in a state like that, it really makes you sick to your stomach. He texted our group [after the game] to say he was okay, and wants us to move on and get ready for the next game. We have to win hockey games, and that's what John wants us to do.”
Spezza is close friends with Tavares, and stayed near him while the medical staff prepared Tavares for transport off the ice on Thursday.
“He was picking up my voice,” Spezza said. “It was a scary moment and he wasn't really responding to too much that was going on, so I was just trying to keep him calm. I actually talked to him when I got home and he said that he picked up my voice and recognized it, so I think that's why I just tried to keep talking him through it, just to calm him down.”
Now that Tavares is safely home and resting, the Leafs are determined to honour his wish that they bounce back in the series. And if anyone is still struggling with the emotional toll of Thursday’s events, Tavares has been sure to address it.
“He's taken it upon himself to reach out to guys to make sure that [they are] doing good too,” Spezza said. “It just speaks to his character, that he's the guy who been in the hospital and he's worried about us, making sure we're ready to go [for Saturday].”
“That [communication] put everybody at ease a little bit,” added Keefe. “There was great concern last night, and even today, just a lot of talking to our medical people and trainers about him. And it was a big thing that was on our players’ minds. They were asking for a lot of updates throughout the remainder of the game. You’re very relieved now.”
The Leafs’ focus can now shift back to the business at hand – winning Game 2. Keefe shuffled his lines in Tavares’ absence at Friday’s practice, moving Nick Foligno to centre on a second unit with William Nylander and Alex Galchenyuk. Riley Nash was taken out and replaced by Pierre Engvall on the third line with Ilya Mikheyev and Alex Kerfoot.
Galchenyuk and Engvall were both healthy scratches in Game 1, despite solid production down the stretch for Toronto. Engvall scored four goals in his past five regular-season appearances, and Galchenyuk had five points (two goals, three assists) in his past seven games.
“Both guys bring degrees of speed and skill,” said Keefe. “The dynamics of our group change when John's not in the lineup. So I just felt we had to make some changes to compensate for that and give us a little bit more of a push offensively and have greater depth throughout in the skill and speed department.”
As for Foligno transitioning to centre, Keefe acknowledged the Leafs don’t have many options at that position, but that Foligno was eager to make the move even during Thursday’s game.
“He was telling me on the bench he was comfortable going to centre,” Keefe said. “He’s got a lot of previous experience there. And even when he plays last wing, he's usually high in the offensive zone and usually the first guy back. He's very comfortable playing down low in our own end, so it's a pretty natural fit there.”
In addition to lineup adjustments, the Leafs know what else needs to be different in Game 2. There’s the abysmal power play, that was 0-for-4 on Thursday (Toronto’s penalty kill was excellent though, going 5-for-5 against the Habs). And there's how the Leafs were outhit by Montreal 55-27, although Keefe joked that the wide disparity proved “[whoever] counts the hits in a game [is] definitely not a Leaf fan.”
What’s done is done now, though. And the Leafs are back in familiar territory missing a key piece of their roster in a first-round series.
Toronto lost Jake Muzzin in another scary scene during last August's qualifying-round series against Columbus. Muzzin was cross-checked in Game 2 by Pierre-Luc Dubois and was out the rest of the way as the Leafs fell in five games to the Blue Jackets.
Prior to that, Toronto lost former centre Nazem Kadri in two recent postseason rounds against Boston. Kadri was suspended for three games in 2018 and then for five games in 2019. The Leafs went on to lose both first-round series in seven games.
That’s history Toronto is hoping won’t repeat itself.
“I think we've been able to respond [to adversity] this season,” said Morgan Rielly. “We knew that during this playoff journey, it wasn't always going to be easy and we weren't going to win every game. Losses are bound to happen, so now it's important that we respond, we come back tomorrow confident with belief in our group. So the challenge is on us now to bring it tomorrow now and really show up.”