TORONTO – Love, it turns out, is only a 90-minute flight away from hate.
Feeling the need to reassure John Tavares that he made the right decision 48 hours after he’d been pilloried by scorn and embarrassed by the scoreboard during his Long Island homecoming, the city of Toronto welcomed back the salary cap era’s best free agent to change clothes and go with open arms.
Prior to the Maple Leafs’ 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres Saturday, the fan-fuelled hashtag #TavaresDayTO began trending, and fellow J.T., mayor John Tory, gave it a push.
When Tavares’ name was announced during pre-game introductions, all 19,088 at Scotiabank Arena rose to their feet and roared for their local hero.
One fan spoke for thousands when she held aloft a homemade sign that read: “Dear John, We do need you. We do care. Love, Toronto.”
Tavares can steady a poker face at Daniel Negreanu levels, but even from the press box, you could see the athlete moved by the reception.
“Definitely got some goosebumps,” Tavares said. “Nice little boost there.”
Per team decision, the rest of the starting lineup drifted away from the blue line they were standing on, leaving their most consistent player and most prolific scorer alone in the spotlight to soak in the group hug.
“Tremendous people, not just hockey players,” Tavares said. “To give me a moment like that, it’s something I’ll always remember. It shows how tight we are in here.”
A moment of affirmation. Tavares saluted his thanks.
And then, a hockey game.
Knowing full well they needed a response to Thursday’s meltdown in Uniondale, the Leafs pressed early.
Tavares struck first because of course he did, jamming in a loose puck behind Linus Ullmark for his league-leading 27th goal at even strength and celebrating with a more passionate fist thrust than usual.
He’d later tack on a pair of assists for a three-point night. His 71 through 65 games puts him on pace for the first 90-point campaign of his career.
Sabres veteran Jason Pominville answered on the very next shift on a similar play, poking home a loose puck in tight. Then Conor Sheary gave Buffalo a 2-1 lead shooting the puck through Leafs defenceman Nikita Zaitsev and Frederik Andersen.
But the final minutes of the first and second periods made all the difference.
With Patrick Marleau providing a hard-earned screen smack in front of Ullmark, Morgan Rielly’s seeing-eye point shot tied the game with just 18 ticks left in the first.
Deadline Day acquisition Nic Petan hollered at Trevor Moore to pass, thened smack a one-kneed one-timer from the high slot to score the game-winner in his Leafs debut, temporarily replacing winger Tyler Ennis on the fourth line and the second power-play unit.
“If there’s a chance to make a play, I’m going to make a play,” Petan said. “It felt good to be out there again, and the goal was the cherry on top.”
Failing to crack the Winnipeg lineup, Petan had been sitting healthy and cold for 72 days heading into Saturday — something the 23-year-old had never experienced in his hockey life. His last NHL goal was scored on Feb. 23… of 2018.
“Our pro scouts saw something they wanted, so we’re putting him in and giving him an opportunity,” coach Mike Babcock said.
“Ennis played real well in the last five games. He didn’t deserve to be out of the lineup tonight. It was just one of those decisions. He’s going back in next game [Monday in Calgary], and we’ll go from there.”
Zaitsev scored off Buffalo D-man Brandon Montour’s skate with just 55 seconds remaining in the second period for some sweet insurance. Mitch Marner added an empty-netter late in the third.
“Good way to bounce back,” Tavares said, his tone steady.
Back home, a return to normal.
“I mean, he stays calm about everything,” Marner said. “I don’t think it matters the moment or situation, he’s always calm, he’s always cool and collected with his thoughts and actions. That’s something you can definitely learn from.
“All the stuff you could hear [Thursday in Long Island], it doesn’t matter how strong-willed you are in your head, it’s going to affect you one way or another. That’s why I think it’s so special to come back home and give him the love he deserved.”
Granted, the effort was against a weaker and more tired opponent than the Islanders — Buffalo had just won an overtime thriller in Pittsburgh Friday and hasn’t scratched together consecutive wins since Dec. 11 and 13 — but the Maple Leafs responded admirably in the wake of their greatest debacle of the season.
Andersen made 35 saves and stood tall in the face of a dozen high-danger scoring chances.
Jake Muzzin threw a couple big-boy checks, Morgan Rielly hustled back to bust up a Jeff Skinner breakaway, and Kasperi Kapanen engaged in a rare fight with Evan Rodrigues.
“It’s going to be a heated game,” Kapanen had predicted. “Everyone in this locker room is excited to forget about last game and have a good one.”
He didn’t add the words “for Johnny.” He didn’t need to; they were understood.
#TavaresDayTO was the idea of local radio host and Leafs fanatic Adam Wylde.
Use #TavaresDayTO in EVERYTHING you tweet for the next 36 hours. And RT anyone who does.
Let’s make this a thing.
— Adam Wylde (@AdamWylde) March 1, 2019
“I just felt like he had such a s—– reception on the Island, it’d be hard not to take that hard. He put his heart and soul into the Islanders and their fans for nine years,” Wylde explained.
“So why not show him how much he’s already appreciated here? Who cares how much he makes in a year? We’re all human. He’s been a beast for us this year. He deserves it.”
As the seconds drained away on Saturday-night win, Toronto stood up once more and hollered, in unison: “Jay! Tee! Jay! Tee! Jay! Tee!”
“I thought it was great, but I also thought the people in New York showed the passion they have for John the other night too,” Babcock said. “Unless you’re a great athlete, unless they love you, they don’t do that.”
So, with all the hype and hoopla, the cheers and jeers, the hate and love packed into the first five months, how does John Tavares feel about being a Maple Leaf so far?
“It’s been unreal to be a part of, and it’s just the beginning,” Tavares said.
“I’m real excited for what’s ahead.”
— Mark Blinch (@mblinch) March 3, 2019