TORONTO (AP) — John Tavares had the best offensive night of his career and was left wanting for more — from the defensive side of the Toronto Maple Leafs attack.
Tavares had the first four-goal game of his career and the Maple Leafs beat the Florida Panthers 7-5 Monday night.
Tavares, who signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Leafs in free agency on July 1, has 45 goals this season, the most by a player in his first season with the franchise.
“Nice to get rewarded like that. It’s a good feeling,” the 28-year-old Tavares said. “I still feel like we can be a little better with some of the opportunities we gave up and eventually went in our net.”
Tavares, who also has nine three-goal games since being drafted first overall by the New York Islanders in 2009, moved into second place in goals this season, three behind Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.
“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.
“You just try to make yourself available.”
Zach Hyman had a goal and two assists, and Patrick Marleau and Jake Muzzin also scored for Toronto. Mitch Marner had three assists, while Morgan Rielly and William Nylander each finished with two assists.
Frederik Andersen made 31 saves for the Leafs.
“The puck has got to stay out of your net,” head coach Mike Babcock said. “We’ve got to help Freddie out.”
Jayce Hawryluk scored twice and added an assist for Florida. Jonathan Huberdeau added two goals and Mike Matheson also scored. Evgenii Dadanov and Mike Hoffman each had two assists.
Rookie netminder Sam Montembeault allowed two goals on four shots before getting pulled just over four minutes into game. Roberto Luongo, who was scheduled to get the night off with the Panthers set to face the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, made 28 saves in relief.
“It’s embarrassing the way we’ve played the last three, four games,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Toronto entered play 2-4-1 over its last seven games, including Saturday’s 2-1 overtime loss at home to the New York Rangers. The Maple Leafs had played better during 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. “That being said, there’s always areas that you can clean up.”
The Leafs scored early when Marleau took a feed from Nazem Kadri and beat Montembeault on the short side for his 16th goal of the season, and second in his last 13 outings.
Muzzin made it 2-0 with his ninth at 4:21, blasting a shot past Montembeault, who was promptly replaced by Luongo.
Tavares scored his first on the power play at 11:05, beating Luongo with a shot between the pads from close range.
Hawryluk got Florida on the board at 13:23, tipping his sixth past Andersen off the rush to make it 3-1. But Tavares added his second just 1:19 later when he tapped a pass from Hyman past Luongo.
Matheson blasted his eighth through a screen on Andersen at 16:25 to give the Panthers a bit of life.
Tavares made it 5-2 on a rebound off the rush at 5:51 of the second to complete his hat trick. Hats rained down to salute the 28-year-old’s second three-goal game of the season.
Tavares scored his fourth to make it 6-2 on another tap-in at 3:57 of the third.
Huberdeau got his 24th at 5:34, but Hyman was left all alone in front and made it 7-3 with his 20th at 6:51.
Then, with the Leafs short-handed, Huberdeau scored his second of the night with 6:24 remaining.
Hawryluk scored his second of the game with 2:24 remaining to make it 7-5.
“Mostly it was a good night,” Tavares said. “We’ll build on the good stuff.”
NOTES: Tavares is the fourth member of the Leafs in the last 20 years to record a four-goal game, and the first since Auston Matthews made his debut in October 2016. … Eddie Olczyk held the previous record for goals in an inaugural season with Toronto when he scored 42 in 1987-88. … Tavares also recorded a hat trick on Oct. 7, against the Chicago Blackhawks. … Marleau suited up for the 1,651st regular-season game of his career, tying Chris Chelios for sixth all-time in the NHL. … Toronto defenseman Travis Dermott (shoulder) took part in the morning skate minus a non-contact jersey. Fellow blue-liner Jake Gardiner (back) also skated before the main session.
Panthers: At Montreal on Tuesday.
Maple Leafs: At Philadelphia on Wednesday.
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