– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEWARK, N.J. — What Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares wanted to focus on after the team’s latest victory was the group effort put in to earn the two points and the great work that his teammates past and present have produced alongside him. But what stood out the most during the contest was his latest individual milestone that he achieved on his way to building a Hall-of-Fame résumé.
Tavares scored two first-period goals, his initial tally marking his 300th in his NHL career, as the Maple Leafs opened up a 3-0 before holding on to defeat the New Jersey Devils 3-2 on Thursday night at the Prudential Center. In three games against the Devils, all wins by Toronto, Tavares scored four goals and had two assists, and his goal on the backhand after a goal-mouth scramble at the 7:21 mark of the first gave the Maple Leafs a 2-0 lead and Tavares his date with history.
“It’s always more satisfying when [the milestone] contributes to a big win, especially bouncing back after the other night,” Tavares said. “Credit goes to a lot of guys I’ve played with over my career because, obviously that was a big part of helping me be successful. I’m just trying to be consistent for as long as I’ve been in the league.”
Tavares now has 29 goals in his first season with the Maple Leafs, just nine shy of his career-high total in goals scored when he put in 38 for the New York Islanders in the 2014-15 season.
“I don’t really think about [the scoring pace] I’m on,” Tavares said. “I just try and go out there and be as prepared and consistent as I can be. I try to be hard to defend and find different ways to produce in certain situations, like around the net, off the cycle, off the rush, and the power play. I’m playing with some pretty good players throughout the lineup, so I’m just trying to be ready for those opportunities.”
Before the end of the first period, Tavares netted his second of the game, a one-timer off a pass from a pinching Morgan Rielly with 6.5 seconds remaining to cap off a three-goal first for the Maple Leafs. Ron Hainsey scored on a slap shot from the left point at 4:30 to open the scoring.
Booed off the ice by the home fans after the first 20 minutes, the Devils responded in the second by scoring two goals in a span of 26 seconds to get back into the game. Blake Coleman scored in front off of a rebound after a shot from Andy Greene to put the Devils on the board at 10:07 of the second, then Brian Boyle’s slap shot beat Leafs goaltender Michael Hutchinson on the next shift to cut Toronto’s lead to one.
Those two goals were as close as the Devils got to restoring parity, and New Jersey was only able to muster three shots on goal in the third period. Mitch Marner’s empty-net goal with 22 seconds remaining in the game sealed the win for the Maple Leafs.
“[Toronto] is a good team,” Devils head coach John Hynes said. “Some of their strengths give us some issues. Particularly, for us, it’s something we continually work on with our guys. We need to be better with the hardness and intensity level around our net. That’s where they do a good job.”
New Jersey once again played without left wing Taylor Hall, out for an eighth-straight game with a lower-body injury.