With the spectre of an opening-round playoff dance with the Boston Bruins all but a foregone conclusion, the primary concern for the scuffling Toronto Maple Leafs with just six games now remaining in the regular-season schedule is health and consistency.
The Leafs crossed another game off the calendar Monday night at Scotiabank Arena with John Tavares providing another exclamation point to an already outstanding season, scoring four times as Toronto beat the Florida Panthers 7-5.
Dozens of caps floated to the ice surface in honour of Tavares’s hat trick after he potted his third of the night early in the second period and provided the Leafs with a 5-2 advantage. Tavares stepped into a big, juicy rebound generously donated to him by Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo, and Tavares made no mistake.
As quickly as the skating “ice girls” and “ice boys” collected the discarded hats and tossed them into big plastic bins, another would twirl out onto the ice surface as the more than 19,000 faithful fans cheered in homage to Tavares.
Ironically, after he swatted in his fourth of the night into a gaping side of the net early in the third period, giving the Leafs a 6-2 lead, no souvenirs to commemorate the moment hit the ice − even though the four-goal achievement was the first in Tavares’s career.
Tavares has now increased his career high to 45 goals on the year, his paring with linemates Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman paying dividends all season long. Hyman also scored on Monday night, his 20th of the season, while adding two assists, and Marner chipped in with three helpers.
“Just trying to play my game and then obviously with the type of players I’m playing with – Mitchy and Hymie – and the type of team we have,” Tavares said when asked to explain his high production this season. “They make so many plays and you just try to get yourself available, obviously being around the net on the power play a lot.
“Just trying to get myself in good spots to find loose change, kind of get lost and read off those other guys when pucks are getting to the net or when to kind of slide off and get available.”
It was a night of milestones with the two assists collected by Morgan Reilly giving him an even 50 on the season to go with 20 goals.
The Leafs were coming off a 2-1 overtime loss to the lowly New York Rangers on Saturday and, heading into the game against the Panthers, had registered just one win in their past four outings and two in their past seven. Over their past four games, the vaunted high-scoring outfit had managed just seven goals.
The Leafs quickly righted that wrong in a first period feeding frenzy where Tavares scored two of his goals and the Leafs secured a 4-2 lead.
Patrick Marleau and Jake Muzzin also scored for the Leafs in the contest. Jonathan Huberdeau and Jayce Hawryluk each scored twice for the Panthers with the other goal by Mike Matheson.
Toronto has been beaten up physically by injury and illness but on that front, the scenario appears to be brightening.
The club welcomed back defenceman Martin Marincin to the lineup on Monday after a three-game absence brought about by a case of the flu. To make room for his return, Igor Ozhiganov was banished to a seat in the press box.
Defenceman Travis Dermott, out almost a month with a bum shoulder, has been cleared for all contract in practice and could be back within the week.
That leaves Jake Gardiner as the only big question mark along the blueline as he continues to progress from a back ailment and is at least back skating.
Tavares, trying to become Toronto’s first 50-goal scorer during the regular season since Dave Andreychuk bagged 53 during the 1993-94 campaign, said with the playoffs looming it is only natural for the team to start fine-tuning their game for the second season.
“You want to be healthy [physically], you want to be feeling good, but our game has to be feeling good and we want that going in the right direction,” Tavares said.
“It’s the right balance of keeping that edge and intensity and focus on continuing to improve and being as best prepared as you can be, and then obviously you want to be able to physically be as fresh as you can be and feel as good as you can.”
The Leafs got the quick start they desperately wanted in the first period, scoring three times in the first 12 minutes, chasing Florida starting goaltender Sam Montembeault to the bench in the process.
Marleau began the offensive slugfest, snapping a shot past Montembeault after a great cross-ice feed from Nazem Kadri for a 1-0 Toronto lead after 2:06.
Just over two minutes later, Muzzin teed one up from the top of the slot that sailed into the Florida net, Toronto’s second goal on just four shots.
That was enough for Florida coach Bob Boughner to stomach, giving the quick hook to Montembeault and replacing him with Luongo.
The Leafs continued to steamroll, with Tavares hitting for his first of the night while on the power play to bring the score to 3-0 at the 11:05 mark.
Florida finally got on board after that with Hawryluk redirecting a feed from Mike Hoffman past Toronto netminder Frederik Andersen. Tavares and Matheson would exchange goals before the period’s end
With Tavares potting the only goal of the second period, Toronto took a 5-2 lead into the third where the only remaining question would be, would Tavares get another.