TORONTO — When John Tavares skated onto the ice during the introductions of starters Saturday night, his Maple Leafs teammates peeled off to allow him to stand alone in the Scotiabank Arena spotlight.
Two nights after the ugly reception Tavares received in his return to New York, the former Islanders captain was serenaded with wild applause and a standing ovation.
And then Tavares showed Leafs fans some love in return.
Tavares scored on what Toronto fans had dubbed “TavaresDayTO,” and Nic Petan got the game-winner in his Leafs debut, as the Maple Leafs beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 on Saturday.
“It was a pretty special moment, certainly to be recognized like that and get the support of the city and the fans,” Tavares said afterward. “Shows you why it’s special to be a Maple Leaf. Definitely got some goosebumps, and a nice little boost there.
“Nice to do it in a win, and come home on a Saturday and play the way we did.”
Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Mitch Marner, with an empty-netter, also scored for the Leafs (40-21-4). Frederik Andersen made 35 saves for the win.
Jason Pominville and Conor Sheary scored for Buffalo (30-27-8). Linus Ullmark stopped 27-of-31 shots.
Marner and Tavares had two assists each, while Martin Marincin, Auston Matthews, Ron Hainsey, Trevor Moore and Jake Muzzin had one apiece.
The Leafs were back in Toronto after dropping an ugly 6-1 decision to the Islanders on Thursday night that both snapped their three-game winning streak, and spoiled what was already a tough return to Long Island for Tavares. The Islanders’ former captain was vigorously booed and serenaded with chants of “We Don’t Need You.”
On Saturday, the Leafs shuffled their starters introductions to announce Tavares last, prompting the raucous outpouring of support.
“I thought it was great, but I also thought the people in New York showed the passion they have for John the other night,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “To me, when you get booed on the road, you must be something special.”
The nasty New York crowd prompted Leafs fans to declare Saturday #TavaresDayTO on social media. They arrived at Scotiabank Arena carrying dozens of signs. One read: “Dear John, We Do Need You, We Do Care! Love, Toronto.” Another said, simply: “Toronto Loves You Tavares.”
Even Toronto Mayor John Tory and former New York Rangers bad boy Sean Avery joined the conversation. Mayor Tory tweeted: “Don’t let the haters get you down @91Tavares, you’re home now and we’re proud you’re here in Toronto! #TavaresDayTO”
Avery posted an expletive-filled video condemning the New York crowd’s reaction.
Tavares gave them more to cheer about when he jammed in a loose puck for his 37th goal of the season, giving the Leafs an early lead just 4:20 into the game.
Pominville tied it up at the six-minute mark scoring off a loose puck in the crease that trickled through Andersen’s pads, then Sheary, who scored Buffalo’s OT winner a night earlier, put the Sabres ahead with a wrist shot off a bouncing puck.
Rielly notched his 16th goal of the season with 20 seconds left in the first with a wrist shot that bounced around before slipping through Ullmark’s legs.
Petan, who was acquired by the Leafs at Monday’s NHL trade deadline, scored his first goal for Toronto, a one-timer off a pass from Moore in front of the net with 4:58 left in the second.
“Unreal pass, I was yelling super loud, when we got to the bench he said ‘good yell,'” Petan said. “It was a phenomenal pass. Didn’t really think about it too much, just smacked it and it went in.”
Petan had only played 13 games for the Winnipeg Jets this season, sitting for long stretches.
His goal Saturday was his first in more than a year.
“Felt good to be out there again, and the goal was the cherry on top,” Petan said.
Zaitsev padded the Leafs’ lead 55 seconds before the second intermission when he fired a hard pass that deflected off Sabres’ defenceman Brandon Montour and into the net.
Marner’s empty-net goal came with just under two minutes to play.
Marner was pleased with how the Leafs bounced back after Thursday’s emotional loss, and praised the Leafs fans for their support of Tavares.
“It was great seeing the fans interact with him like that and give him that ovation after that night in New York,” Marner said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the way we wanted to play.
“It wasn’t the game we wanted and it was pretty harsh on him . . . All the (negative) stuff that you can hear, it doesn’t matter how strong-willed you are in your head, it’s going to affect you one way or another. That’s why I think it’s so special to come home and give him that love he deserves.”
The Leafs, who went into the night in third place in the Atlantic Division, were missing defencemen Travis Dermott and Jake Gardiner. Gardiner was already out with a sore back before Dermott injured his shoulder when he was checked into the boards in Wednesday’s 6-2 win over Edmonton. Dermott is expected to miss four weeks.
The Sabres had dropped two games to the Leafs already this season, including last week’s 5-3 loss in Toronto on trade deadline day. Buffalo arrived on the heels of an 4-3 victory in overtime Friday night in Pittsburgh.
The Leafs now head west for three games. They play in Calgary on Monday, in Vancouver on Wednesday, and wrap up their road trip next Saturday in Edmonton.
Lori Ewing , The Canadian Press