Toronto Maple Leafs thump Lightning 7-2 in emphatic Game 2 response
TORONTO — John Tavares doesn’t tend to show much emotion.
The Maple Leafs’ stoic captain usually leads by example with a head-down, dogged determination he’s demonstrated since his days as a teenage phenom.
On the heels of a disastrous playoff opener, Tavares knew it was on him to drag his team into the fight.
The rest of Toronto’s stars followed suit.
Tavares registered his first post-season hat trick as the Leafs bounced back in impressive fashion off an embarrassing Game 1 performance with an emphatic 7-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday to even their first-round playoff series 1-1.
“We wanted to have a good response,” said the 32-year-old, whose team dropped the opener 7-3 on home ice. “As the captain, tried to set the standard.”
Mitch Marner scored twice and set up another, while William Nylander had a goal and an assist. Morgan Rielly tied a franchise record with four assists, and Auston Matthews added two of his own for the Leafs, whose big-name talent stepped up in a big way in a big moment.
“That’s the type of performance you’re looking for from those guys,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We needed to have a good day today, and we did.
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“Now we have a series.”
Zach Aston-Reese provided the rest of the offence for Toronto. Pulled in Tuesday’s ugly defeat, Ilya Samsonov made 20 saves.
“More fun to watch,” said the Leafs goaltender. “Offensive zone, we dominate today. Defensive zone, we block ton of shots.”
The performance lifted a cloud of angst from a city and fan base in a panic following a Game 1 performance that looked nothing like the 111-point club that cruised to second place in the Atlantic Division.
“Our focus is on what we can do,” Rielly said. “We’re not really trying to spend too much time worrying about the mood around us.
“We’re trying to control what we have here.”
Ian Cole and Corey Perry replied for Tampa, which was minus injured top-4 defencemen Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has played every second of Lightning post-season action since 2020, allowed seven goals on 37 shots.
“These guys are pros,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said. “We all had a close seat to what happened. They know what’s going on.”
Games 3 and 4 of the best-of-seven series go Saturday and Monday in Florida.
“Clear slate,” Marner said. “Be ready to go.”
Tampa was vulnerable minus the minute-crunching Hedman, but Keefe pointed out the battle-tested Lightning have won before without key pieces.
“They are who they are in lots of ways because they’ve dealt with all sorts of adversity along the way,” he said. “Those kinds of things don’t faze that team.”
It also didn’t help the cause.
Facing a 0-2 deficit against an opponent that’s a perfect 10-0 all-time when winning the first two games of a series, Toronto scored 47 seconds into the opening period on a power play to ignite a pulsating Scotiabank Arena when Marner scored on the first shot.
After the Leafs survived two Lightning power plays thanks to Samsonov and some desperate defending, Tavares made it 2-0 at 12:45 when he took a pass from Rielly and fired through a screen before punching the air in celebration.
The home side then went up by three — the same deficit it faced Tuesday at the end of the first — on a delayed penalty when Nylander ripped his second of the series at 15:08.
Booed off the ice at every buzzer in Game 1, the Leafs received a deafening ovation as they headed to the locker room from their towel-waving faithful.
Toronto, which lost to Tampa in a tight first-round series last spring and hasn’t advanced in the post-season since 2004, continued to push in the second with a couple of terrific shifts.
But the Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021 before making last year’s final, responded at 8:58 of the second when Cole scored off the rush to make it 3-1.
The Leafs started to wobble a little, but Tavares buried his second of the night at 13:14 to settle any nerves on the bench or in the stands.
Toronto’s fourth line got in on the action when Aston-Reese banged home a loose puck at 15:52 before Marner added his second on a shot that glanced off a Lightning player in front of Vasilevskiy with 1:58 left in the period.
Cooper briefly considered pulling the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner to give him a breather.
“That was quickly shut down by the goalie,” said the coach. “That’s why he’s the best in the world. He’s not coming out.
“Once again, tip your cap to that kid.”
Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn and Tampa forward Tanner Jeannot dropped the gloves in a spirited third period after Toronto’s Mark Giordano and Zach Bogosian also tangled in the first.
Perry, who had a goal and two assists Tuesday, added his second of the series for the Lightning with 7:22 left.
The winger then fought Justin Holl before both got an early shower as a group of fans goaded Tampa players in the penalty box.
Tavares completed his hat trick _ the 12th of his career and Toronto’s first in the post-season since Alexander Mogilny in 2003 _ with under five minutes to play on a man advantage.
“Johnny was outstanding,” Rielly said. “We could be here all night talking about the great things that he brings for our team on and off the ice. His actions spoke louder than words tonight.
“We’re tied up and we’re going on the road.”
Hedman sat out with an undisclosed injury suffered in Game 1, while Cernak didn’t dress after taking an illegal check to the head from Michael Bunting in the opener.
The gritty Toronto winger was suspended three games.
Tampa centre Michael Eyssimont, meanwhile, also didn’t suit up after taking a huge hit Tuesday.
The Lightning got some positive injury news with Jeannot’s return from a leg injury.
Rielly’s four assists tied the franchise record in a playoff game, joining Doug Gilmour (1994), Darryl Sittler (1977) and Ian Turnbull (1976).
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