TORONTO — John Tavares scored on what Maple Leafs fans had dubbed “TavaresDayTO,” and Nic Petan got the game-winner in his Leafs debut, as Toronto beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 on Saturday.
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 each had two assists, while Martin Marincin, Auston Matthews, Ron Hainsey, Trevor Moore and Jake Muzzin had one apiece.
The Leafs were back at Scotiabank Arena 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.”
The nasty reception prompted Leafs fans to declare Saturday #TavaresDayTO on social media. They arrived at Scotiabank Arena carrying signs that read: “Dear John, We Do Need You, We Do Care! Love, Toronto” and “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.
The Leafs changed their starting lineup introductions to announce Tavares last, prompting a huge roar and standing ovation from the crowd.
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 in front of the net with 4:58 left in the second. 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.
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.
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