TORONTO – John Tavares’ anticipated Scotiabank Arena debut was an exhibition thriller as the Maple Leafs beat the Sabres, 5-3, on Friday night.
The team’s (3-0) big free agent signing scored twice while adding three other shots on net.
After a wild start gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead just 71 seconds into the game, Tavares added a goal two minutes later that sent the sellout crowd of 18,833 into a frenzy.
The new Leafs centre certainly noticed.
“It was quite the atmosphere for a preseason game,” Tavares said, in the dressing room. “It was a lot of fun to play in that atmosphere.
“There weren’t many empty seats tonight, lots of blue and white jerseys, t-shirts and hats, and just how passionate everyone is about this team in this city. It’s pretty special.”
Tavares was joined by Mitch Marner on his wing as in their previous game on Tuesday night in Lucan, Ont., against the Senators, and they continued to build on their previous performance which saw the pairing each record three points.
While those two had a lot to be happy about, they were missing their usual partner in left winger Zach Hyman as he suffered a bone bruise midway through the second period and did not return.
Babcock called it a hip pointer.
“He got cross-checked in the hip. He’s fine. He’ll be off for a few days, but you get better quick.”
Journeyman Chris Mueller scored the winning goal for the Leafs late in the second period after an offensive zone face off found its way on his stick right in front where he jammed it in.
Ron Hainsey and Pierre Engvall recorded the other two Leafs goals.
The battle to be the Maple Leafs’ backup goaltender might have shifted a little bit in Curtis McElhinney’s favour tonight after relieving Garrett Sparks midway through the second period as planned.
Sparks had allowed three goals on 12 shots, while McElhinney stood on his head stopping all 20 shots he faced and helping bail the Leafs out of their three penalty kills in the third period.
On the other end of the rink, Tage Thompson looked very promising for the Buffalo Sabres (2-1-0), as he scored a beautiful goal in the second period where he toe dragged the puck around Martin Marincin and scored past Sparks.
The 6-foot-6 winger is one of the Sabres top ranked prospects, and made a case to make the team tonight after his performance.
C.J. Smith and Andrew Ogelvie also scored for a youthful Sabres team that did not include Jack Eichel, Rasmus Dahlin, and many other big names.
The two teams will be right back at it Saturday night at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, and expect to see mostly new faces on the ice as the teams will look to avoid overworking their players at this juncture of preseason.