Leafs thankful for Tavares as meeting with Penguins’ star duo looms

John Tavares talks with the media about the Toronto Maple Leafs going through a frustrating stretch of play and how he knows it’s on him to produce.

TORONTO — John Tavares faced Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first game of his NHL career.

They were also his first opponent in a Stanley Cup playoff series, not to mention a frequent divisional thorn in the side of his New York Islanders over nine seasons.

So when the veteran centre goes into Pittsburgh he knows exactly what he’s getting. There aren’t any easy minutes to be found when you see Crosby or Evgeni Malkin jumping over the boards before every faceoff.

Having success on those nights requires a specific mindset.

“Just being as ready as you can be. Understand they capitalize on mistakes and they can make a lot happen with a whole lot of nothing,” Tavares said Friday. “Whether that’s time or space, or just not even having the puck very much and then all of a sudden they get one chance with it and they’re able to capitalize.

“It’s a great opportunity to raise your game and have that challenge.”

Tavares has done it time and again.

He’s basically played two of the best players of his generation to a draw over a decade’s worth of match-ups, despite arguably being on the inferior team in every one of them. That’s something Tavares hopes has changed since his move to the Toronto Maple Leafs, although we won’t be measuring that when the teams meet Saturday with neither Auston Matthews (shoulder injury) or William Nylander (contract stalemate) inside PPG Paints Arena.

The Leafs should feel especially fortunate they can turn to Tavares now.

Had he chosen to sign with any of the other five finalists back on July 1, this would have been a bleak-looking lineup to take into Pittsburgh. There wasn’t really a Plan B, per se, if Tavares passed up the opportunity to come home. Perhaps Nylander would have agreed to a new contract by now, with Toronto having $11 million more in cap space to play with, or perhaps Kyle Dubas might have found a trade for another centre, but there wasn’t anything else on the free-agent market that would have remotely insulated them for a Matthews injury quite like signing Tavares did.

It allows Mike Babcock to show up for this particular duel with adequate weapons. He doesn’t control last change, but will feel comfortable with Tavares seeing a ton of Crosby while Nazem Kadri handles the Malkin assignment.

Tavares has gone head-to-head with Crosby for 225 minutes 11 seconds of even-strength time during his 50 career games against Pittsburgh (44 regular season, six in the 2013 playoffs) and controlled 49.1 per cent of shot attempts in those situations.

The goals are 15-11 in Pittsburgh’s favour, but six of those came during Tavares’s rookie season in 2009-10 — when he was still getting adjusted to the NHL game and Crosby was in his fifth year.

Since then, the even-strength goals are 9-9 when they’re both on the ice. Any Crosby opponent would gladly take that trade-off before puck drop in Pittsburgh.

No wonder Tavares views games against the Penguins as “a lot of fun.”

He’s got a straightforward plan when squaring off against No. 87.

“If I can have the puck a lot more than he has it, that puts me in a better position, I think. Making him have to defend and use his energy having to get it back,” said Tavares. “I think it’s not trying to worry so much about that match-up. I think it’s making sure I’m ready to play.

“Playing within our structure, executing at a high level, playing at a high pace — short, hard shifts — and not trying to do too much. [I don’t want to] feel like I’ve got to do more than he’s doing.”

Tavares has done a magnificent job of staying within himself since jumping into the fishbowl by signing a $77-million, seven-year contract with his hometown Leafs. He’s found it surprisingly easy to block out the noise that follows the team — noting how long the journey is to win a Stanley Cup, and how important it is to stay grounded and in the moment.

He’s on pace for 44 goals and 88 points, both of which would be career-best totals for him as a NHLer, while generating 3.69 shots per game. Tavares had five shots against Dallas Stars goalie Anton Khudobin in Thursday’s 2-1 loss, plus another that struck the crossbar, while generating a boatload of Grade-A chances with linemates Mitch Marner and Zach Hyman.

“I think he’s been outstanding,” said Babcock. “I think with all these deals you make it’s the test of time, it’s not the test of a week. I think probably there’s been lots of adjustments [for Tavares] just from moving [cities], different players, different coaches, all those things. Uh, this [the media], lots of things.

“But I think he’s been great.”

He’s often been great against the Penguins.

The Leafs could use another one of those performances with the goals having dried up and tensions starting to rise following losses in four of six. Tavares has seen it all before and knows better than to get frustrated with his string of personal near-misses these last few games.

“Losing’s not a lot of fun. I don’t enjoy it,” he said. “When you feel like you have opportunities to capitalize, you think about it [afterwards] and you think about how you can make adjustments and how you can get better next time out.

“As I’ve learned over my career, letting that weigh you down kind of inhibits you going forward.”

Plus it’s no way to go into a game in Pittsburgh, where the task is heavy enough on its own.

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