“I still get the same butterflies like I did my first year, my first game,” Tavares said before a winning debut here Wednesday, and yet you’d never really have known. He didn’t put anything extra into the celebration when he fired a shot high over Carey Price’s blocker, and he barely broke focus when the Scotiabank Arena crowd saved its biggest ovation for him during the pre-game introductions.
This could have been any other Wednesday-night game for a 10-year NHL veteran, rather than the first of the rest of his new hockey life.
“I can’t imagine what he’s gone through the last three, four months and then all of the hype leading up into his first game here,” said teammate Auston Matthews.
It’s both a testament to his serious, stoic nature and the gravity of the decision he made back on July 1.
Tavares has shown himself to be a no-maintenance player since joining the Leafs on a $77-million, seven-year contract. He is heavily invested in making this new endeavour work and given no indication he’d ever make anything about himself, even though he now occupies a prominent position on the most heavily-discussed team in hockey.
And while he didn’t bring his absolute best in the opener against the Montreal Canadiens — the Tavares line had its hands full with Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher at 5-on-5 — he still tilted the scales in Toronto’s favour during a 3-2 overtime victory.
It was Tavares who drew the first two minor penalty calls against the Canadiens, one of which resulted in a goal from Matthews. Then, with the second period winding down, he took a pass from old London Knights teammate Nazem Kadri, sent Matthew Peca tumbling to the ice with a sharp move towards the middle, and beat Price clean.
“I’m sure it’s a relief for him to get that first one,” said Kadri. “It’s nice, just like the old days — we connected on another play. It’s usually me giving him the puck for him to finish. He’s certainly got that scoring touch that’s very dangerous.”
His star shines so brightly that his arrival has sent the Leafs into a different orbit. Mike Babcock can now roll out Tavares, Matthews and Kadri down the middle — they played 18:04, 17:29 and 17:03 against Montreal — and so now they find themselves being mentioned prominently as Stanley Cup contenders.
Only the game against the Canadiens underscored the huge amount of detail they’ll still need to find before they even come close to realizing their potential. Under constant pressure from an organized Montreal attack on Wednesday, the Leafs struggled to complete clean breakouts and establish prolonged stretches of control against a weaker opponent.
“We just have to be a little bit more sure of ourselves and play a little bit of a quicker game,” said Tavares. “Obviously, I think we’re a pretty good team when we have the puck. We just need to do a better job of taking care of it and playing in their zone.”
Still, it was a night to remember for Tavares. The kind of occasion he once dreamed of while growing up in the suburbs of the city and sleeping under Maple Leafs bed sheets — a picture he famously shared after deciding to leave the New York Islanders to sign here this summer.
Despite the focused exterior on Wednesday night, he tried to soak in the moment.
“It was tremendous,” said Tavares. “To have that type of welcoming from this fanbase and this city is pretty special. Like I’ve said all along, I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity and just want to take advantage of it and give it everything I got.
“I hope to make them proud and I hope to be a part of a lot of success here.”
He’s already earning respect among his new teammates. There’s a recognition from them that jumping into the fishbowl can’t be the easiest thing to do — and yet Tavares has made it look routine with five goals in exhibition and another in his regular-season debut.
“I expected no different, to be honest with you,” said Kadri. “I knew he was going to handle every situation like a pro. I mean, JT’s been in the spotlight for a long time — even coming up when he was 13, 14 years old. He was the real deal then, too.”