That a midweek matchup in early November stood to be the biggest statement game of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ season thus far speaks to how dire things have been around the club early on. That it came against a subpar Philadelphia Flyers team on the second half of a road back-to-back and starting a goaltender in search of his first career win in eight NHL starts really hammers home the tension.
But those factors don’t make the stakes less real, either. Wednesday night was about as close to a must-win game for the Maple Leafs as you can get eleven games into the NHL calendar. And for good reason, too.
After a troubling opening stretch was followed up by a disastrous west coast road trip that saw the team pick up just two of a possible eight points, the Maple Leafs were headed home surrounded by questions regarding the future of their core, Sheldon Keefe’s job security, and Kyle Dubas’ overall tenure as GM. It was inescapable, and the pressure was mounting.
A victory over that reeling Flyers squad wouldn’t have shut the noise out completely, but it certainly would’ve helped.
Simply put: The Maple Leafs needed a statement. They needed one of their talented and well-compensated superstars to grab the torch and lead them, at least for one night, out of the abyss.
John Tavares did exactly that.
Logging just 12:44 in ice time due to the sheer number of penalties taken by both teams throughout the night, Tavares still put forth what may have been his best performance as a Leaf; three goals – two at even strength – along with one primary assist and five shots on net. The middle tally of his hat trick was a particularly impressive one, with Tavares undressing Philadelphia’s new $50 million defenseman Travis Sanheim on the rush, driving to the front of the net, and bashing the second of his two attempts home past netminder Felix Sandstrom.
That was the most mobile, active, and, frankly, unstoppable Tavares has looked since his 47-goal debut season in Toronto back in 2018. Amid the Leafs’ early slide, their captain has been the club’s best forward by a considerable margin, clicking along at a point-per-game pace prior to his eventual four-point night while propping up a struggling power play, and consistently putting his best foot forward even as his fellow teammates have not.
The Maple Leafs gave Tavares that massive seven-year, $77 million contract five years ago for occasions precisely like this one – to have a player capable of grabbing hold of the moment and dragging his club to victory.
When the spotlight shone its brightest, Tavares came through. And the timing didn’t go unnoticed.
“He was on it tonight, for sure,” replied Auston Matthews of his captain’s performance following Wednesday’s win.
“He made some pretty incredible plays. Obviously, his second one was just special. So, just a great game by him, just to see him leading the way for us when we wanted to have a good bounce back.”
Despite the Maple Leafs coming off four straight losses and dropping six of their 10 games in total, Tavares had still managed to tilt the ice in his team’s favor whenever he stepped on it. In over 135 minutes of even-strength ice time accounting for Wednesday’s contest, Tavares has mustered an impressive 50.84 percent expected goal share and helped generate 52.38 percent of the available scoring chances. The line he’s anchored alongside William Nylander and a rotating cast of forwards, not to mention, has consistently been the Maple Leafs’ best, with the Malgin-Tavares-Nylander iteration putting up an impressive 55.61 percent expected-goal share during their time together, while the Kerfoot-Tavares-Nylander trio comes in even higher at 75.70 percent.
Leadership comes in many different forms. And for a captain like Tavares, whose soft-spoken nature doesn’t lend naturally to the rousing pre-game speeches that catch the eye, his brand of leadership demonstrates itself in consistency. In leading by example. In being the first person through the wall.
As far as the regular season goes, there was no better example of that than Wednesday.
“I think there’s no secret, whether it’s myself or some of our other core guys, of the way we want to play and the roles we have within the team,” Tavares explained to reporters, his trademark stoicism out in full force despite a bombastic performance.
“We want to be difference makers. So, there’s no question we wanted to come out and have a strong game tonight.”
Safe to say his coach agrees.
“I like that he scored three goals,” Sheldon Keefe joked when asked for his thoughts on his captain’s performance.
“They were important goals, too. The first one he shoots one in the net there for us. But the second one, that’s big-time stuff. That’s a big moment in the game. They’ve just made it 3-2, and with everything that’s been happening with our team here, and you’re trying to get a win and manage tight games… We needed to continue to push and play in their half of the ice, and I loved in that situation that he drives it deep. It’s a good spot to take on a defenseman right there and trust your skillset to do so. So, it’s a big-time play, he executed, and really put the game away for us.”
The Maple Leafs aren’t entirely out of the woods yet, of course. In the context of their upcoming schedule, a win against the Flyers only really buys so much breathing room. The real test comes on Saturday night when the Leafs face off against Boston, an inter-division rival currently in the midst of a red-hot start.
Beat the Bruins, and the vibes change completely. Lose, and the noise grows louder once again.
Bringing the same focus and, perhaps, even, the same passion Tavares has through the first 11 games of the year will be a great place to start.
When asked whether his hatred of the Flyers still persists following his time on Long Island, Tavares’ answer was full of it:
“Any team that doesn’t wear a Maple Leaf”
That should keep the wolves from the door for now.
- John Tavares Gave the Maple Leafs the Statement They Needed
- Check all news and articles from the latest NHL updates.