LUCAN, Ont. — In the hours after the Maple Leafs signed John Tavares this summer, Mike Babcock mused about playing his shiny new centre alongside Mitch Marner.
After just one pre-season game, Toronto’s head coach must be smiling at what the finished product could eventually look like.
Tavares and Marner combined for six points Tuesday as the Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators 4-1 in the opener of the NHL exhibition schedule for both clubs.
“They had a good night,” said Babcock, trying to downplay the performance. “We got a lot of good signs.”
Tavares scored his first two goals in a Toronto uniform and set up another, while Marner ripped a laser home in the third period to go along with two assists.
“It’s one exhibition game,” Tavares said. “It’s a start. Good to get things going and get some positive results, but we know we have a lot to work on.”
The trio of Tavares, Marner and Zach Hyman got better as the night went on for the Leafs, who were without about half their regular roster, including No. 1 centre Auston Matthews and starting goalie Frederik Andersen.
“In the first period we were just trying to get the feel out there,” Marner said. “In between periods we talked a little bit about what we like to do, the second there was more chemistry on our line and we were rewarded.”
Andreas Borgman also scored for the Leafs, while Ryan Dzingel replied for the Senators, who held a 35-30 edge in shots.
The game was played at the intimate Lucan Community Memorial Centre as part of the Kraft Hockeyville event in this town of 4,700 — a community some 25 kilometres outside of London, Ont., in the southwest corner of the province.
The Senators grabbed a 1-0 lead 21 seconds in when Dzingel took a pass from Matt Duchene from behind the net after a Nazem Kadri turnover to beat Leafs goalie Curtis McElhinney upstairs.
Tavares said following the morning skate he gets nervous before games no matter the time of the year or the venue, but those butterflies probably went away about five minutes later when Marner fed him down low on the power play before he beat Mike Condon past the blocker to tie the score.
“It’s just nice to be out there again,” Tavares said. “It’s always good to get rewarded.”
Borgman then gave Toronto a 2-1 lead on a 2-on-1 when the defenceman jumped into the rush and took a pass from Emerson Clark just 1:22 later.
After the teams played a scoreless middle period, Tavares added his second on a great effort in front in the third.
With a tired Senators group stranded by an icing call, Tavares outmuscled Ottawa defenceman Patrick Sieloff for a loose puck in the crease at 6:06 after Justin Holl’s point shot squeaked through the pads of backup goalie Marcus Hogberg.
Toronto then put things out of reach with 8:12 left when Tavares stole the puck in the neutral zone and rushed the other way before eventually finding Marner, who whipped a wicked wrist shot past Hogberg.
“I don’t think there was ever really a doubt,” Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly said of Tavares and Marner finding chemistry. “When you put players of that quality together, normally it doesn’t take long for them to gel with one another.
“That was on display tonight.”
Tavares, who turns 28 on Thursday, inked a seven-year, US$77-million contract on Canada Day after bolting the New York Islanders for the team he grew up cheering for in the suburbs west of Toronto. The signing pushed a franchise that has not won a playoff series since 2004 into the league’s stratosphere as favourites among bookmakers to lift the Stanley Cup this spring.
Ottawa, meanwhile, has plummeted down the standings and been dogged by a number of off-ice controversies over the past 12 months.
Tuesday also marked the dawn of a new reality in the nation’s capital as the rebuilding Senators played their first game since the Erik Karlsson saga ended last week with the deal that sent the captain and star defenceman to the San Jose Sharks for four young players and two draft picks.
Lucan won the right to host Kraft Hockeyville in a vote on social media last year, with 1,318 tickets for the game distributed across the region and through a lottery. The town also gets $250,000 for arena renovations.
Store fronts across Lucan welcomed both teams, but this is decidedly blue-and-white country.
One church’s sign read: “Love Thy Neighbour Even If They Are Not Leafs Fans.”
The game featured strong rosters on both sides, including Tavares, Kadri, Marner, Hyman, McElhinney, Rielly, Travis Dermott, Zach Hyman, Ron Hainsey, Connor Brown and Josh Leivo for Toronto.
Ottawa brought Dzingel, Duchene, Condon, Bobby Ryan, Thomas Chabot, Mikkel Boedker, Mark Borowiecki, Tom Pyatt and Chris Wideman. Dylan DeMelo, one of the pieces that came over in the Karlsson trade, also suited up for the Senators.
Tavares, Kadri and Marner all played junior for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, as did Ottawa rookie Alex Formenton, making Tuesday a homecoming of sorts. Kadri and DeMelo are both from London.
“What a thrill for the town of Lucan,” Tavares said. “It was fun.”