Refreshed Tavares 'flying' since break
The Maple Leafs held their annual outdoor practice on Thursday at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. The team decided not to hold a practice before travelling to Ottawa on Friday.
For the first time since the first two games of the season, John Tavares has recorded consecutive multi-point games.
"He had a great break and is buzzing around out there," observed linemate William Nylander. "He's flying."
After picking up a pair of points in Monday's loss to the New York Islanders, Tavares racked up three points in Wednesday's win over the Dallas Stars. It was his third three-point night of the season and first since Nov. 17.
A family vacation to Naples, Florida during the bye week and All-Star break did the 33-year-old centre a world of good.
"Everyone's probably feeling a little more refreshed," Tavares said. "You get a little break and recharge."
Tavares snapped a career long nine-game point drought with a power-play goal in Winnipeg right before heading south.
"He scored a big goal going into the break, which I am sure helped a lot," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "It wasn't just about rest and relaxation for him. It was a combination of that and some work to stay fresh. A guy like him looks at it as an opportunity to refresh and also get a bit of a leg up on the rest of the competition as much as he can."
Tavares actually packed his gear and skated two times during the break to ensure he could get back up to speed quickly.
"I know he spent some time on the ice over the break," noted defenceman Morgan Rielly. "He's a very focused, very driven guy, so you expect nothing less from him."
JOHHHHHHNNNNNYYYYY TORRRRRRRONTOOOOOOO!! pic.twitter.com/OWTnnnEnKG— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 6, 2024
Tavares is on pace for 25 goals and 67 points this season, which would be a decline from 36 goals and 80 points last year. His shooting percentage is 8.3, which is down from his career average of 12.8. But Tavares never appears to get frustrated or fixated on goal or point totals. While some players let slumps snowball, the Leafs captain seems to have an unshakeable self-belief.
"I've been really happy with my game all season long," he insisted. "There's always one or two games that maybe aren't great, but over the course of the year the foundation of my game has been fairly strong and it's good to see things going in and getting rewarded."
Tavares is now up to 15 goals and 25 assists through 49 games.
"I am not surprised to see him come through," Keefe said. "He is a guy who has scored a lot [historically] and has had his chances."
This is the second time this season Tavares has scored in three straight games although when he did it in October each goal came at even strength. These last three tallies have all come on the power play.
"We made some little adjustments on the power play that I think have benefitted him," Keefe noted. "He has capitalized on it and done a good job of it."
After going 1-for-20 in eight games right before the final outing before the break, Toronto is 6-for-8 on the power play in the past three games. The three Tavares goals have come from the slot/bumper position. There were two deflections off Rielly shots and then a one-time blast off a Nylander pass.
Tavares scored a career high 18 goals on the power play last season to lead the Leafs. This year, new assistant coach Guy Boucher is the architect of the power play and Auston Matthews leads the team with 11 power-play goals.
What's changed of late?
"Just the group being really connected," said Tavares, who is up to seven man-advantage markers this season. "Knowing where our outs are, getting to our spots, moving the puck quickly, not trying to do too much, and doing it with pace."
JUST LIKE THAT! pic.twitter.com/uijFSSEHSU— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
The next step for Tavares is a breakthrough in 5-on-5 play. He's scored just one even-strength goal in 24 games since Dec. 12.
"Let's not get too picky here," Keefe stressed. "The goals are the goals ... Just stay with it. I thought John was excellent at 5-on-5 [on Wednesday]. The play he made to create the Nylander goal in the third period is big-time stuff."
Tavares picked up the puck just inside his own blue line and skated it quickly into the Dallas zone. He made a quick turn toward the slot and passed the puck to Nylander, who ripped a shot past Scott Wedgewood.
"It was [Roope] Hintz coming back and tracking on me, and you know how well he can skate," said Tavares. "I had a step early and when he came back, I felt like with his momentum I was able to get to the middle of the ice ... any time you can threaten the middle, attack the middle of the ice, it opens things up."
Things are starting to open up more for Tavares, but he's not getting carried away with this latest hot streak.
"Just keep playing well," he said of his mindset, "want to keep that consistency."
WILL NY THE SCORING GUY! 😎 pic.twitter.com/CqwjaX6Dit— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
Tavares is going to court due to a dispute with the Canada Revenue Agency over an $8 million tax bill. Tavares is arguing he should owe 15 per cent on a $15.3 million (U.S.) signing bonus he received when he joined Toronto in 2018. The CRA believes the bonus should be taxed at 38 per cent.
"It's not weighing on me," Tavares said on Thursday in his first public statement on the case. "I understand the question, but at this time I don't have any comment other than it's in the court process now."
Maple Leafs captain John Tavares is fighting the Canada Revenue Agency over an $8M tax bill.— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) February 7, 2024
Tavares says he should owe 15% on a US$15.3M signing bonus he received when he signed with Toronto in 2018. The CRA says the bonus should be taxed at 38%.
Tavares was all smiles at the team's annual outdoor practice on Thursday.
"It's an incredible market to play in," the Oakville, Ont. native said. "A fan base that has so much passion and obviously wants the team to do well so bad. It naturally creates expectation and people want to see us succeed because they love the team so much, so you try and feed off that and enjoy every aspect of it. Days like today or any time you show up at practice, obviously playing at Scotiabank [Arena], the support we get is remarkable. I don't see it as any kind of burden. It's just a remarkable opportunity and never take it for granted."
Tavares has experienced a few of these outdoor events since signing a seven-year, $77-million deal with his hometown team. As has become custom, the Leafs travelled to practice in full uniform, minus skates, on the subway.
"It is a mix of confusion and excitement," said Keefe. "Some people are asking questions and are not quite sure what is going on. Others are maybe planning ahead and expecting us. It is a nice thing and another great way to connect with the city and community."
"It's like a petting zoo, to be honest with you," said veteran forward Ryan Reaves with a laugh.
Oh just another day for Willy 🚂 pic.twitter.com/2qkeW341cD— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
Once they hit the ice in front of the Toronto sign at City Hall, the Leafs split into three groups – Team Europe, Team Ontario and Team North America – for a 3-on-3 tournament.
"I hope coach was watching because I had a goal and an assist there," fourth-line winger Reaves said with a wide smile. "Maybe you'll see me in overtime soon."
Europe beat North America in the final game. Europe was lucky to have Arizona natives Matthews and Matthew Knies in the fold. Matthews played in Switzerland during his draft season while Knies' parents immigrated to the United States from Slovakia.
Blue Tint 🥶😮💨 pic.twitter.com/omWb8zGZ1V— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
Hundreds of fans crammed the stands and areas around the rink to watch and cheer.
"Hockey is alive and well in Toronto," Reaves declared. "The support that comes out for a practice like this is unbelievable. It's something you don't see in any other city."
"You can hear and feel the passion," said Tavares. "The love for this team is incredible. A lot of us grew up playing on the outdoor rink so it's cool."
After practice, players signed autographs for fans and some guys spent time on the ice with their family. Tavares and Reaves both had their kids with them.
"It's special," said Reaves. "My boy just started getting big into hockey and he eats this stuff up. He scored five goals the other day and he rubs it in my face every day, so it's been fun."
Keefe had his sons out with him too. It was a rare chance to hit the ice together during the hockey season.
"You try to cherish these moments," the 43-year-old from Brampton, Ont. said. "My kids are getting older. You try to maximize every chance you get to do something like this. I miss a lot, and they miss their dad a lot. They have the privilege to get out here and take part in the event. You want to make sure they get a chance to do so."
"We think he will be okay," Keefe said. "We just wanted to make sure he got the day off. He is a little banged up obviously, so both he and [Mark] Giordano took the day."
that's a late hit on McCabe pic.twitter.com/maEVOrXU3J— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) February 8, 2024
Mitch Marner called it "mind-boggling" that no call was made on Marchment on the play.
"That was obviously a dirty play," added Nylander. "The puck wasn't even there."
Keefe asked referees Mitch Dunning and Eric Furlatt for an explanation.
"They thought it was a good hit," Keefe relayed post game. "I see a vulnerable player who is targeted. I would have to think that is the type of hit you do not want to see in the game. He was bleeding everywhere. I am sure they are going to look at it."
The league did look at it and fined Marchment $5,000, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, for interference. Is that enough of a punishment?
"It is not my decision to make," Keefe said on Thursday. "I made it clear that I felt it was a play that should've been penalized in the moment. It is up to the league to handle it from there, which it seems they did."
McCabe was furious in the immediate aftermath of the hit but, after getting some stitches in the intermission, played with controlled aggression in the third period.
"Jake is an absolute competitor," said Keefe. "There were some confrontations between him and Marchment in the third period. Jake was hard on him, and the team was hard on Marchment the rest of the way. I think Jake asked him for a fight. The fight didn’t happen, obviously. Jake kept his cool and didn't hurt the team. As we are learning or have learned, Jake is an absolute competitor and warrior. I loved how he handled that."
Reaves passed McCabe the player-of-the-game belt in the dressing room.
"It was a pretty big time in the game where Caber could have probably two handed him and taken a penalty and his composure was really good there because those are a big two points," Reaves said. "I think he handed it pretty well."
Top tier belt pic ngl pic.twitter.com/MnDEZZSzHY— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
Matthews scored a couple goals in the 3-on-3 tournament on Thursday. It's what he does, after all.
Tone Tucks 🎈 pic.twitter.com/aKUz3Xwjes— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
Matthews potted his league-leading 41st goal on Wednesday night. He won a battle with Jani Hakanpaa and saw his cross-ice pass deflect in off defenceman Esa Lindell during a power play. A lucky bounce created by hard work.
"Huge wall battle and then taking it to the net," Nylander said. "Just attacking the net and scoring."
41 FOR PAPI!! pic.twitter.com/3oLEk0ophm— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
Matthews was probably owed some luck after seeing a shot ring off both posts and the crossbar on Monday night.
Matthews is on pace 69 goals. No one in the NHL has scored 70 in a season since 1992-93 when Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny did it.
"If there's anyone that comes to mind that's capable of doing it it's him," Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said during the All-Star festivities in Toronto. "If you were to ask any guy, 'Who could do that?' It's him. It takes so much and even pure goal scorers, a number like that, you need some bounces too. You need some things to go your way. But he's more than capable. He's shown it and I think it'd be great for hockey to see a run like that. That just brings more attention to the game and, as players, you appreciate records like that."
Matthews was asked about that comment following Wednesday's game.
"It means a lot, you know, coming from a guy like him," the 26-year-old said before smiling. "I'm not sure how else to respond to it, but it's obviously really nice words from him."
Matthews made it clear, though, where his mind is at as the Leafs look to make a push toward the playoffs.
"It's not really the main focus for myself or for this team," Matthews said. "Just try to take it game by game, go out there and try to play to the best of my abilities and do what I can to help the team win whether that's on the scoreboard or not."
Matthews was front and centre during the All-Star week. He participated in the skills competition and served as a team captain in the All-Star Game. He led his group to victory while being named MVP. Matthews also did plenty of interviews and attended numerous events where his goal-scoring prowess came up.
"It's almost you're pretty thankful it's back to what you're accustomed to," he said of returning to the regular-season grind. "I'm not sure there's really much of a layover from that. It's nice to just get back to playing games, get in a rhythm again, and go from there."
With David Kampf and Calle Jarnkrok out with injuries, Matthews is being asked to take on a bigger role on the penalty kill. He nearly scored his first career shorthanded goal on Wednesday during an impressive sequence by the team early in the second period. Nylander also had a great opportunity.
"Our penalty kill was pretty good," Nylander said. "I mean, didn't really give them much except for their goal. It was nice to get chances off of that too. I think that kind of shifts momentum."
The Leafs killed off four of five power plays in the two games so far this week. Nylander has taken Kampf's place on the top unit alongside Marner.
"I've just been watching the other guys PK," he said of how he's improved. "With Kampfer out and Jarny, have to take on a bigger role and try to do my best."
The efforts by Matthews and Nylander are resonating within the group.
"Huge to watch this because we understand how hard these guys are working and how important for the team," said goalie Ilya Samsonov.
The Stars entered Wednesday's game as the top road team in the NHL.
"We have a veteran group," coach Peter DeBoer said before puck drop. "They understand the momentum points of the game and how to manage that in order to win on the road in tough buildings. We've done it all year."
But it was the Leafs who swung the momentum in the third period after Evgenii Dadonov scored on a penalty shot to tie the game. On the next shift, Matthews and Marner combined to put the Leafs back in front. The crowd erupted and Marner celebrated emphatically.
"It's just a rush," the winger said. "A lot of joy. Like I said last year, I'm an idiot when I celly sometimes and the adrenaline gets to me, and I turn into a little kid again back in minor hockey. It's a cool moment to get to do that with your fans and kind of turn the momentum a little bit."
MITCHELLY MARNER!!!🪄 pic.twitter.com/h0gIkDNEe1— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) February 8, 2024
Nylander and Tavares combined on the next shift to give the Leafs an insurance marker, which ended up being the game winner.
"That's obviously a huge response from Matty and Mitchy getting out there and scoring right away," Nylander said. "We were able to follow that up and shut the game down in a way there."
"We talked about patience and process being really important in this game," Keefe said. "We were playing against a really good team that was going to require us to play 60 minutes."
ROSTERS IN THURSDAY'S OUTDOOR PRACTICE:
TEAM NORTH AMERICA