The Canadian Press
TORONTO–The best offensive night of his career still had John Tavares wanting more.
Mainly on the defensive side of things.
The star centre recorded his first four-goal game in the NHL as the Toronto Maple Leafs topped the Florida Panthers 7-5 last night.
Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77-million (U.S.) contract with the Leafs in free agency on July 1, now has 45 goals on the campaign–the most ever by a player in his first season with the franchise.
“Nice to get rewarded like that. It’s a good feeling,” said the 28-year-old.
“I still feel like we can be a little better with some of the opportunities we gave up and eventually went in our net,” he added.
Tavares, who came in with nine hat tricks in his career since being drafted first overall by the N.Y. Islanders in 2009, jumped into second in goals in 2018-19, three back of Washington Capitals’ sniper Alex Ovechkin.
The line of Tavares, Zach Hyman (one goal, two assists), and Mitch Marner (three assists) combined for 10 points as Toronto (45-25-6) exploded after scoring just seven times over the team’s last four games.
Hyman hit the 20-goal mark for the first time, Marner reached 90 points, and Tavares is at 86 points to tie his personal best set in 2014-15, with six games left on the schedule.
“Just trying to play my game,” said Tavares, whose previous career-high for goals was 38.
“With the type of players I’m playing with and the type of team we have, they make so many plays,” he noted.
“You just try to make yourself available.”
Patrick Marleau and Jake Muzzin provided the rest of the offence for Toronto while Morgan Rielly and William Nylander added two assists each in front of 19,125 at Scotiabank Arena.
Frederik Andersen made 31 saves for the Leafs, who are five points back of the Boston Bruins for second in the Atlantic Division and almost assured of meeting their rivals for a second-straight spring in the first round of the playoffs.
It wasn’t all smiles in the Toronto locker-room, however, as the Leafs led 4-1 and 6-2 before letting the Panthers creep within striking distance late.
“The puck has got to stay out of your net,” Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock stressed. “We’ve got to help Freddie out.”
Jayce Hawryluk scored twice and added an assist for Florida (33-31-12) while Jonathan Huberdeau (two) and Mike Matheson had the other goals.
Evgenii Dadanov and Mike Hoffman each had two assists.
Rookie netminder Sam Montembeault allowed two goals on four shots before getting the hook just over four minutes into game.
Roberto Luongo, who was scheduled to get the night off with the Panthers set to visit the 39-year-old’s hometown Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, made 28 saves in relief.
“It’s embarrassing the way we’ve played the last three, four games,” Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad said.
Toronto entered play 2-4-1 over its last seven games, including Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss at home to the N.Y. Rangers, but had improved defensively over a recent 1-1-1 stretch after surrendering 23 goals in four prior outings over a six-day span from March 11-16.
“We’re starting to play better,” said Rielly, who hit the 70-point plateau last night.
“That being said, there’s always areas that you can clean up.”
Elsewhere in the NHL, Dallas beat Winnipeg 5-2, L.A. blanked Calgary 3-0, Nashville nipped Minnesota 1-0, Pittsburgh downed the N.Y. Rangers 5-2, New Jersey shaded Buffalo 3-1, Tampa Bay topped Boston 5-4, St. Louis upended Vegas 3-1, and Detroit edged San Jose 3-2.