Tavares’ heroics could mark turning point for Maple Leafs

TORONTO — If the Toronto Maple Leafs can build off something, it’s the second goal of the hat trick center John Tavares scored in a 5-2 win against the Philadelphia Flyers at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday.

Center Auston Matthews said it was “just special.” Forward Zach Aston-Reese called it “a sight to see.”

The Maple Leafs let a 3-1 lead slip to 3-2 in the third period, like they had at the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday. Against the Ducks, they allowed the tying goal later in the third and lost in overtime 4-3. They came home on a four-game losing streak with a 4-4-2 record, and they had to listen to questions about coach Sheldon Keefe’s job security.

Not this time. Just as Toronto started to look safe and defensive, Tavares skated down the right wing, made a sweet move to elude defenseman Travis Sanheim deep in the right circle and cut to the net. After goalie Felix Sandstrom stopped his initial shot with the right pad, Tavares chipped in his own rebound to make it 4-2 at 12:42.

“That’s big-time stuff,” Keefe said. “That’s a big moment in the game.”

Maybe even in the season. We’ll see.

“You recognize we haven’t been playing great,” Tavares said. “We haven’t been able to close out some games. But even though we haven’t played the way that we’re capable of, we’ve been in every game, and we’ve had opportunities where we just haven’t finished it out. [It’s] just continuing to stick with what you do, the same approach daily, with being aware of what we’ve got to get better at.”

Video: PHI@TOR: Tavares scores in 3rd period

Tavares made it 5-2 with a power-play goal at 15:23, and the fans tossed caps on the ice to celebrate his hat trick. They roared when defenseman Mark Giordano roughed Flyers forward Travis Konecny and fought Flyers center Kevin Hayes in one sequence at 18:16.

This was what the fans wanted to see: bouncing back, pushing back, the core coming through. Tavares also had an assist, giving him a four-point night. Matthews had a power-play goal and an assist. Forward Mitchell Marner and defenseman Morgan Rielly each had two assists, and forward William Nylander had one.

“I think everyone was aware of kind of where we were heading,” said Aston-Reese, who also scored. “We weren’t playing awful, but we weren’t playing a full 60 minutes, and there was a conversation in the locker room, and we made the adjustments, and I thought we played almost a full game tonight.”

Normally, it’s too early for such anger and angst. But this is Toronto, one of the biggest, most passionate hockey markets in the world, and consider the full context.

The Maple Leafs have not won the Stanley Cup since 1967, the longest drought in the NHL. They haven’t won a series in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2004; every other team has won one since then, not counting the Seattle Kraken, who entered the NHL last season as an expansion team.

The past six seasons, the Maple Leafs have lost in the opening round of the playoffs. The past five seasons, they’ve been eliminated in a winner-take-all Game 5 or Game 7.

Last season was the biggest letdown. The Maple Leafs set team records for wins (54) and points (115), and Matthews became their first 60-goal scorer, winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL most valuable player. But they drew the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference First Round, blew a 3-2 series lead and lost 2-1 in Game 7.

Management brought back the same coach and core this season. In the end, that might turn out to be wise, if the Maple Leafs tune out the noise, turn themselves around and win in the playoffs. But in the interim, they won’t get the benefit of the doubt, because they haven’t earned it.

The same questions remain. How far can the core carry this team? Is the supporting cast strong enough? Is the goaltending good enough? Do they have enough toughness? Can their skill succeed in the playoffs?

The heat is on. General manager Kyle Dubas is in the last year of his contract and has said he’s more than happy to be evaluated at the end of the season. Free agent coach Barry Trotz, who won the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018 and ranks third in NHL history with 914 wins, has said an Original Six team would intrigue him. Matthews is eligible to sign a contract extension after the season.

One win won’t change any of that, especially this one. The Flyers had lost 1-0 at the New York Rangers the night before and were 1-1-2 in their past four. Instead of goalie Carter Hart, who is 5-0-2 this season, they started Sandstrom, who was 0-6-1 in his NHL career.

Bigger tests loom. The Maple Leafs host the Boston Bruins on Saturday, visit the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday and host the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday. Boston (9-1-0) and Vegas (9-2-0) are tied atop the NHL standings with 18 points each. Carolina (6-2-1) is considered a top contender.

But this was a start. It needs to be a start.

“It’s a really positive step forward for us,” Matthews said.

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