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Tavares dazzles in first game with Maple Leafs

Center's chemistry with Marner in win against Senators has Toronto buzzing

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

LUCAN, Ontario -- On the morning of his debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs, center John Tavares autographed a handmade poster of a wide-eyed little girl which said, "Hockeyville = Tavaresville."

It would prove to be all of that.

Seventy-nine days after signing a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1, Tavares had two goals and an assist in a 4-1 win against the Ottawa Senators at Lucan Community Memorial Centre as part of Kraft Hockeyville Canada.


[RELATED: Tavares scores twice in debut]


"It's always good to get rewarded," Tavares said. "I know I'm counted on in that area.

"I don't try to look at it too deep other than some of the positives areas I know I can be a lot better in and a lot better for my linemates. I just want to build on it. We have some games still to work on things. You want to hit your stride when the season starts, so there's still time to get there."

If you get the impression Tavares, 27, was trying to downplay his exploits in his Maple Leafs curtain raiser, you'd be right. But even his serious there's-still-work-to-do attitude couldn't dampen the enthusiasm of a Maple Leafs fan base thirsting for the team's first Stanley Cup championship since 1967.

Hundreds of shrieking kids began chanting his name the moment he stepped off the bus Tuesday morning. The Maple Leafs and Senators arrived in this southwestern Ontario town of 4,500 to participate in the Kraft Hockeyville Canada festivities, and Tavares was a man in demand from signature seekers young and old.

He rewarded their enthusiasm about eight hours later when he ripped a shot past Senators goalie Mike Condon at 5:12 of the first period to tie the preseason game 1-1. It would be a foreshadow of the successful night he and linemates Mitchell Marner and Zach Hyman would have.

Tavares and Marner (one goal, two assists) each finished with three points and seemed to gain on-ice chemistry as the game progressed.

"I just thought we got better as the game went on," Tavares said. "It's just one exhibition game. It's a start. Good to get things going and get some positive results, but we know we have a lot to work on, to get better at and to feel each other out.

"I think we're trying to communicate a lot to get better. We know we're just feeling each other out. We're trying to get comfortable. I'm still trying to get used to the system. Just keeping things simple and trying to be predictable with one another. It's a small step. But it's something we can take as we move forward."

Video: OTT@TOR: Tavares has productive preseason debut

Tavares (37 goals, 47 assists) and Marner (22 goals, 47 assists) combined for 153 points last season, albeit on different teams. Tavares' decision to leave the New York Islanders after nine seasons was partially based on the attraction of the Maple Leafs' cache of young talented players, including Marner.

The body of work is very small. But so far, so good.

"It went well," Marner said. "I think in the first period we were just trying to get the feel out there. In between periods, we talked a little bit about what we like to do. There was more chemistry on our line in the second and we were rewarded,

"He's a big guy. He's powerful. He can get around the net. I think if you leave him alone, he can do some dangerous things around the net."

Tavares said he and his teammates were overwhelmed by the support they received from the community of Lucan, which is located 17 miles north of London, Ontario.

As the Maple Leafs' bus approached the town, the players looked out the window to see a homemade mannequin holding a "Go Leafs Go" sign on the front lawn of a farm.

Before arriving at the arena, they saw a telling sign on the front of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church. "Sunday Service 10:30 -- Love Thy Neighbor Even If They Are Not Leafs Fans," it said.

It all added up to a memorable experience.

"It was great," Tavares said. "What a thrill for the town of Lucan and great for us to come out and play and enjoy it. It was fun to play. Everyone in the building was loud and lively and into it. Obviously [a] lot of Leafs fans, which we appreciate.

"It was something we won't soon forget."

Just like diehard Maple Leafs fans won't soon forget Tavares' first game representing his hometown team, preseason or not.

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