TORONTO — John Tavares answered three questions about a resounding Toronto Maple Leafs‘ victory before attention turned to what was already on everyone’s mind — the star centre’s return to Long Island.
“Every line’s playing, being hard to play against,” Tavares said. “It makes us tough to match up against.”
Frederik Andersen made 34 saves for the Leafs, who announced before the game Jake Gardiner is week to week with a sore back before fellow defenceman Travis Dermott suffered a left shoulder injury in the third period. He’s also listed as week to week.
Tavares spent nine seasons with the New York Islanders, including six as captain, before bolting for the team he supported growing up in the suburbs west of Toronto in free agency on July 1.
The 28-year-old will play his first game as a visitor against the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009 on Thursday when the Leafs visit Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“I fully embraced being an Islander,” Tavares said. “I loved it and I gave it everything I had.”
Fan reaction, however, has been visceral since his departure, and he’s likely in for a nasty reception.
“I had every right to go through the process that I went through (in free agency),” Tavares continued. “I tried to be open and honest when I made my decision. I had no idea what I was going to do until I made my decision. People can take it any way they want.
“All I can do is control what I can control.”
Leafs head coach Mike Babcock, whose team crept back within a point of Boston for second in the Atlantic Division, suggested the return to New York is something Tavares needs to “put to bed.”
“The great thing about fans is they pay their money and get to say whatever they want,” Babcock said. “He’s a good man. He was good for their franchise, he’s great for our franchise.
“He made a decision to come home. I don’t know if anyone can fault you for that.”
Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins replied for Edmonton (26-30-7), which actually jumped out to a 1-0 lead and played a spirited opening 20 minutes Wednesday. Mikko Koskinen allowed four goals on 16 shots before getting the hook in favour of Anthony Stolarz, who finished with 18 saves. Darnell Nurse had two assists for the Oilers, whose fading hopes for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference took another hit.
“Too many little mistakes,” said Draisaitl, who scored his 39th goal of the season, and 15th in the last 15 games, in the first period. “If you have too many little mistakes against this team, clearly, they’ll take full advantage of that. That’s what they did.”
Oilers superstar Connor McDavid, who grew up just north of Toronto, returned to the lineup after serving his two-game suspension for a hit to the head on Islanders defenceman Nick Leddy last week.
Edmonton head coach Ken Hitchcock said after the morning skate McDavid was “pissed off” about the suspension.
The entire roster probably had a similar feeling in the wake of Wednesday’s second period.
After Draisaitl and Marleau traded goals in the first, the floodgates opened for Toronto at 1:09 when Marner redirected a perfect feed from Zach Hyman for his 22nd, and second in the last 14 games.
The Leafs then went up 3-1 just 1:17 later when Johnsson finished off a pretty passing play with Kasperi Kapanen and Auston Matthews for his 18th. Nylander got in on the action on the power play at 4:50 when he ripped his fifth on Koskinen, who gave way to Stolarz.
Johnsson rounded out the seven-minute deluge at 8:09 on another man advantage when he beat Stolarz through the pads for his second of the night.
“The puck has been going in,” said Johnsson, who has four goals in his last four outings. “I’m going to keep working.”
The Leafs got a brief scare earlier in the second when Kapanen crashed awkwardly into the boards and went to the locker room after one shift, but the winger returned towards the end of the period.
Tavares made it 6-1 with his 36th on a 5-on-3 power play 25 seconds into the third. Nugent-Hopkins scored his 20th with 3:54 left to round out the scoring.
“Hard to say what I’ll feel,” Tavares said of what’s to come Thursday. “I’m sure it’ll be an emotional evening.”
Notes: Babcock said blue-liner Martin Marincin will be recalled from the AHL Marlies to replace Dermott. Marincin will suit up with Justin Holl against the Islanders. Igor Ozhiganov dressed for Gardiner on Wednesday. … Marleau’s 12th goal of the season in the first was the 549th of his career, which tied Ron Francis for 28th on the NHL’s all-time goals list. … Leafs centre Nazem Kadri missed a fourth straight game with a concussion. … The Oilers visit Ottawa on Thursday.