Tavares chasing hometown history in dominant first season with Leafs

John Tavares scored four times as the Toronto Maple Leafs took down the Florida Panthers 7-5.

TORONTO — Were John Tavares to stop right here, he would have a top-10 season in Toronto Maple Leafs history for goals and a top-25 campaign for points.

Fortunately he doesn’t have to.

There are still six games left to chase an even loftier position in the record book of his childhood team.

For Tavares’s next trick, how does a late charge at a 50-goal season sound? It’s suddenly possible after a career-best four-goal game against the Florida Panthers on Monday, the kind of night where he went hard to the net like always and got rewarded again and again.

He’s now up to 45 goals, and in need of a surging finish to become Toronto’s first 50-goal man since Dave Andreychuk in 1993-94. It’s not likely, but it’s not impossible either.

“If you get there, it would be great,” Tavares said after a 7-5 win. “It just means you’re helping the team out and contributing consistently. Obviously it’s a significant number in our league for many reasons.”

It’s a number he once blew past during a ridiculous 72-goal campaign with the Oshawa Generals, but has never previously come close to touching as an NHLer. His high-water mark during nine seasons with the New York Islanders was 38.

In Toronto, Tavares found instant success with Mitch Marner and his next-level vision, just as Leafs management projected he would during their free-agent pitch to him last season. He also benefits from being one of two No. 1 lines on Mike Babcock’s bench, something that came into play Monday when Auston Matthews drew the difficult Aleksander Barkov assignment against Florida.

But, more than anything, Tavares has been a model of consistency since grabbing the spotlight and signing a $77-million, seven-year deal with the Leafs. He’s so steady you could set a watch to him. He hasn’t gone more than two games without a point and more than five games without a goal all season.

Other than putting four pucks behind Roberto Luongo, there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about his game against the Panthers. His first goal saw Panthers defenceman Aaron Ekblad accidentally whack it in and the second came on a nice pass from Zach Hyman.

The third and fourth both saw Tavares drive hard to the crease and pick up loose rebounds, which might as well be his calling card. He’s got an uncanny ability to gain position on defenders in the hard areas and get open for tips or loose change.

“Johnny knows where to go,” said Marner. “He’s smart, he’s played for a long time and knows where to score the goals and he’s done a great job of finding his way to the net and getting open and putting those in.”

The result of his machine-like work ethic and devotion to the process is an unexpected chance to chase 50 — a milestone only Andreychuk, Rick Vaive and Gary Leeman have hit as Leafs.

Consider it something to focus on or rally around in the final days of a season where Toronto isn’t battling for playoff positioning. They are basically playing out the string and still have one more visit remaining to Tavares’s old home on Long Island next Monday.

Even a regimented coach like Babcock, who is all about the greater good and trying to get better today in order to win tomorrow, sees value in chasing personal milestones. Hyman hit 20 goals for the first time in his career against Florida, while Marner, Auston Matthews and Morgan Rielly are among the others destined to emerge from 2018-19 with new career bests.

“I think it’s a huge thing and I try to be cognizant of it,” said Babcock.

Tavares has already matched his best NHL season with 86 points, but the chance to get to 50 goals is really special. Only five players have reached that number since he entered the league in 2009 — Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Corey Perry — and the opportunity may simply never come around again.

However, any extra pressure that comes with trying to score five goals in the final six games isn’t likely to faze Tavares.

What’s opened his new teammate’s eyes the most this season is how consistently he prepares no matter what is happening. Through winning streaks and losing stretches, whether he’s got a hot hand or is on the wrong end of puck luck, nothing changes.

“It’s easy to go into the rink early once a week or do treatment — roll out — when you feel like it. He does it every single day,” said Rielly. “It’s not that easy and it’s a long season, and he’s in there every single day doing the same thing. He’s got a routine he’d like to stick to.”

While there’s no reason to expect that to change now, it’s worth reflecting on what brought him home in the first place.

It was about the chance to play with great young players and chase a Stanley Cup. The allure of doing something special in the place where he fell in love with the game.

If Tavares were ever to score 50 goals wearing a Leafs sweater, it’s something that would be remembered in these parts long after he was gone.

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