By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – Captain John Tavares scored his first postseason hat-trick as the Toronto Maples Leafs avenged a Game One rout with a 7-2 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, leveling the opening round Stanley Cup playoff best-of-seven series at 1-1.
Leafs fans had their fingers on the panic button after a 7-3 loss to the Lightning on Tuesday, booing the team off the ice.
But they were quickly back on the bandwagon on Thursday, showering their men with thunderous cheers as they head off to Tampa Bay for Games Three and Four on Saturday and Monday.
“We needed a response tonight in a big way,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “They took it to us pretty good the other night.
“We needed to have a good day today. We did.”
The oddsmakers are backing Toronto to win the best-of-seven series but history favors the Lightning, who have won seven consecutive playoff series after taking the first game.
The Leafs have dropped five straight after a Game One loss.
One thing is certain, bad blood is boiling.
Thursday’s contest turned nasty right from the start with the Leafs’ Mark Giordano and Tampa Bay tough guy Zach Bogosian dropping the gloves to fight early in the opening period.
Having finished the regular season with the league’s fourth best record expectations were high entering the postseason that the Leafs would, at the very least, win a playoff series, something they have not managed for 19 years and just maybe end a 56-year Stanley Cup drought.
And they showed in Game Two why they are among the favorites, their best players stepping up when it mattered.
Tavares netted a hat-trick, set-up man Mitch Marner added a brace and Morgan Rielly tied a franchise playoff record with four points for a defenseman.
The Lightning, who have been to the finals each of the last three seasons, winning the Cup twice, had laid the foundations for their 7-3 Game One win with a 3-0 opening period, sparked by a first goal just 78 seconds after the opening faceoff.
The Leafs used that same playbook on Thursday, storming to a 3-0 first period lead with Marner scoring just 47 seconds into the contest on Toronto’s first shot.
Tavares and William Nylander also found the back of the net to go into the intermission 3-0.
Ian Cole got the visitors on the board in the second period before Tavares, Marner and Zach Aston-Reese blew out the score to 6-1.
Tavares completed his hat-trick in the third while Corey Perry scored for Tampa Bay.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Peter Rutherford)