TORONTO – The Maple Leafs have come down with a number of slumping scorers lately, but John Tavares isn’t one of them. Just ask the Florida Panthers.
The Leafs’ top-line centre posted the first four-goal game of his career Monday to lead Toronto past Florida 7-5, boosting his team’s recently slumping offence with a dominant performance.
“It’s just work as hard as I can and improve my game as much as I can and just focus on the process and commitment you make on a daily basis to be consistent,” Tavares explained of how he accomplished the feat. “I don’t think you try to worry about the numbers a whole lot; you just want to be productive and continue to get chances and obviously make a difference when that time comes.”
The seven goals scored in Monday’s game was more than the Leafs had registered in their last three contests combined, and the win was just their third on home ice since March 2.
In the victory, Tavares became the first Leaf to score four goals in a game since Auston Matthews did it in his 2016 NHL debut, and is one of only four Toronto players in the last 20 years to reach the mark. While Tavares long ago surpassed his previous career-high in goals of 38 from 2014-15 (he’s now at 45), the four-point game on Monday tied his career-high in points at 86, also earned in 2014-15 with the New York Islanders.
In typical Tavares fashion, all four of his scores against Florida came within a 20-foot radius of the net, where he muscled his way into position again and again.
“He’s smart; he knows where to score the goals. He’s done a great job getting to the net and putting those in,” said Tavares’ linemate Mitch Marner. “He’s an honest player. He always wants to be the best player out there and that’s what you appreciate about him. He had a great night at both ends.”
“He plays hard,” added Morgan Rielly, who tallied two assists. “He’s not a guy that can only score from a distance. He scores greasy ones, he works hard down low, he makes plays and he can really do it all. When you watch him work the way he does and grind the way he does, but also have his skill, it’s pretty to watch.”
The Leafs got off to a good start against the Panthers, which aided Tavares’ eventual break out. Patrick Marleau spotted Toronto a 1-0 lead less than three minutes into the first period, busting a seven-game stretch by Toronto giving up the first goal in a game, and Jake Muzzin had them up by pair before the five-minute mark. Two goals-against on four shots was enough to chase Sam Montembeault from the Panthers’ net, replaced by veteran Roberto Luongo. That’s when Tavares took over.
On the Leafs’ first power play chance, Tavares slipped a puck five-hole past Luongo, padding Toronto’s lead to 3-0. He converted again after Jayce Hawryluk put Florida on the board, potting a cross-crease feed from linemate Zach Hyman.
Carrying over two goals from the first frame, Tavares completed his hat trick early in the second, burying the rebound from Rielly’s initial shot on Luongo. Hyman and Marner combined to tee up Tavares fourth goal early in the third, when the veteran was hanging out next to a gaping net.
“There’s a lot of trust in each other’s game and I think we just read off each other really well,” Tavares said of his line. “It’s great how comfortable we felt with each other right away. Two tremendous players, and they’ve just made it easier on me to step right in and not have to worry about doing too much, but be myself, play my game.”
It was fitting that on a milestone night for Tavares, his linemates also hit important marks of their own. Marner had three assists in the game, to reach 90 points on the season, while Hyman tallied 20 goals in a campaign for the first time in his career.
“Chemistry doesn’t happen overnight; it takes time to figure out what each person does,” Hyman said of his unit’s success. “We have good chemistry. Everyone has their own role on the line and we know what each other’s roles are and we try to complement each other.”
If Tavares could adjust anything from a game he won’t soon forget, it would undeniably be how the Leafs finished it off. They led the Panthers 7-3 less than seven minutes into the third, but became careless in their own end, and goals from Jonathan Huberdeau and Hawryluk made the scoreboard uncomfortably tight for Toronto.
But the Leafs got the job done in due time, and given how the last couple weeks have gone they needed the confidence boost. With only two wins in their last seven games prior, an emphatic showing like Tavares’ could be the momentum swing his team needs to get rolling.
“It’s obviously nice to get rewarded like that, it’s always a good feeling, but, you know, I think we still feel we can be a little better with some of the opportunities we gave up,” he said. “[Those] eventually went in our net. All in all, obviously, I think mostly it was a good night and we’ll build on the good stuff.”
Answering the bell
Coach Mike Babcock decided before Monday’s game he was going to give the game’s toughest matchup not to Tavares’ line as per usual, but to Matthews’ unit with Andreas Johnsson and William Nylander instead.
That pit Matthews’ group against Aleksander Barkov, Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov, and the trio more than held their own. Barkov’s line produced just one goal at even strength, from Huberdeau with assists from Barkov and Dadonov, and Matthews’ unit controlled possession at 55 per cent.
Afterwards, Babcock said the game was Nylander’s best of the season, and that Matthews and company were “really good, really good. Outstanding, dialed in from the start, all three of them…For me, that’s the most positive sign that we’ve had in a long time because that gives us a chance, knowing John [Tavares] or [Matthews] can do that.”
Not having to square off with Barkov likely played a role in what Tavares was able to do offensively, but with the playoffs only six games away, it’s a boon for the Leafs to know they have options as to which of their top centres can handle the other team’s big guns.
Matthews finished the game with one assist and two shots on goal, Nylander tallied two assists and three shots on goal, while Johnsson added an assist and one shot on goal.
Busting the slump
It has been a rough month for Nazem Kadri’s line, where he, Marleau and Kasperi Kapanen have all been struggling to light the lamp.
Going into Monday’s game, Marleau had two goals in 18 games, Kadri had zero goals in 11 games and Kapanen was sitting at one goal in 15 outings. The dry spell only served to embolden their unit against Florida, and they came out firing.
Marleau’s opening score was a full-line effort, starting with Kapanen’s speedy zone entry and set up by a spectacular pass through the slot from Kadri to Marleau shortside on Montembeault.
After 20 minutes, Kadri and Marleau had a 5-on-5 shot attempt percentage of 75 per cent to lead all Leafs, and Kadri had registered a game-high four shots on net. They continued to play well down the stretch, and all three skaters on the line ended the night with a point and had something to build off in future outings where Kadri and Kapanen will look to end their own scoring droughts.
Rielly reaches new heights
With two assists in Monday’s win, Rielly reached the 70-point mark for the first time in his career. He became the third defenceman in franchise history to get there, joining Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull.
Andersen hangs in
Monday’s wasn’t the prettiest win of Andersen’s season. But considering the netminder was 1-2-1 in his previous four starts, not including another start from which he was pulled, and had allowed a combined 18 goals-against in those games, the victory felt hard-won.
Andersen wasn’t tested much in the early going as Toronto kept play mostly in Florida’s end, but when the Panthers got chances, they found ways to beat him with two goals on only nine shots.
The second strike in the first, by Mike Matheson, was an especially difficult one for Andersen, since he was being screened by defenceman Nikita Zaitsev on the play and had little chance of making the stop.
Andersen held Florida off in the second, but when the Leafs struggled defensively in the third, Andersen had to work harder containing the Panthers. The various lapses helped Huberdeau get two past Toronto’s goalie in the final frame, and Hawryluk’s second of the game was a stop Andersen would have liked to have. But while it may not have been one of his best showings, bend-don’t-break ended up securing the Leafs two points and, like the rest of the group, Andersen will take the victory.
He finished with 31 saves (.861 save percentage).
Muzzin’s buzzin’ at home
Including his goal in Monday’s contest, Muzzin has now tallied 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 13 home games since being traded to the Leafs in late January. Comparatively, Muzzin has registered only one goal and four assists in 13 road games since the trade.
Blue and White Trending
Tracking Leafs’ trends all season long
Monday was the fifth time this season that the Leafs have put up seven goals in a game, and the second time in less than two weeks (the other instance was March 15, in a 7-6 win over Philadelphia).
Toronto hits the road to face Philadelphia on Wednesday.