Tavares, Marner’s big nights propel Maple Leafs to victory over Panthers

The Eastern Conference-leading Florida Panthers were enough of a motivating factor for Mitch Marner and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

But having the Canadian men’s soccer team clinch its first spot in the World Cup since 1986 with a 4-0 win against Jamaica down the road at BMO Field an hour before puck drop provided a neat sporting backdrop to the Maple Leafs’ determined 5-2 victory on Sunday in Toronto.

There was a buzz among the 18,939 at Scotiabank Arena before the game, and the Maple Leafs admitted the soccer game was on in the dressing room.

“Yeah, it was on in the background. I stopped watching when it got to 3-cobb. Sorry it’s soccer, 3-nil,” said Marner, who with three assists became the fastest in Maple Leafs history to reach 300 career assists in his 411th game.

WATCH | Marner racks up 3 assists:

Maple Leafs bounce back, defeat division-leading Panthers at home

After losing in Montreal on Saturday, Toronto rebounded with a 5-2 win over Florida on Sunday night. John Tavares led the way offensively with a pair of powerplay goals. 0:56

When asked if Canada’s result on the pitch provided a lift to the Maple Leafs, Marner replied, “no, we have too many Americans.”

It was evident, however, the Canadians clinching had a positive effect on the Maple Leafs. Head coach Sheldon Keefe opened his session with reporters by congratulating Canadian coach John Herdman.

Toronto captain John Tavares, who scored a pair of second-period power-play goals on setups by Marner, also was excited about Canada going to its first World Cup in 36 years.

“I saw driving in the packed house [BMO Field],” Tavares said. “It was just a great moment for Canadian soccer and those players. I’m really excited.

“The guys were talking a little bit about it before the game.”

There were several positive developments for the home side besides Marner’s playmaking in the hockey game. First, the Maple Leafs didn’t give the speedy and transition-oriented Panthers much room.

It’s also evident veteran defenceman Mark Giordano has been a calming influence on Toronto’s back end since being acquired before the NHL trade deadline last Monday.

Goalie Petr Mrazek also bounced back with his second straight win since being on waivers last Sunday. He stopped 30-of-32 shots.

Marner’s ‘awareness out there is exceptional’

“We didn’t give up too many chances offensively with odd-man rushes or anything like that,” Marner said. “We played well with our gap control, forwards made reads quickly, and our defence had great gaps as well with being tight up, so just overall the five guys on the ice always were just playing in sync there, and that’s what we talked about and what we needed to do. So just a good job executing.”

Down 2-1, Marner set up Tavares for power-play goals 6:02 apart in the second period for career assists 300 and 301. He then fired a pass into the slot to hit Ilya Mikheyev in stride for a third assist.

“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” Tavares said of Marner’s passing ability. “His awareness out there is exceptional. The way he sees a play develop is two, three steps ahead.”

Auston Matthews floated a long shot into the empty net with less than a second remaining for his 48th of the season.

Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly checked in with a goal and two assists as the Maple Leafs (41-19-5) won for the second time in three starts since the NHL trade deadline last Monday.

The Panthers (44-15-6) lost for the first time in three starts with Claude Giroux in the lineup after the former Philadelphia Flyers captain was acquired last weekend.

“The games against them [Leafs] are going to be high intensity, playoff-type games,” said Panthers defenceman MacKenzie Weegar. “It’s gonna be like that down the stretch against every team. It’s an exciting team to play and we’ll be ready to go next time.”

The Maple Leafs needed only 11 seconds to give the 19,939 at Scotiabank Arena something more to cheer about. Rielly redirected a pass from T.J. Brodie for a 1-0 advantage.

The Panthers tied the game when Sam Bennett found defenceman Montour in the slot. He fired a high shot past Toronto goalie Mrazek midway through the first frame.

Florida snatched the lead early in the second period. Toronto’s William Nylander had the puck poked off his stick by Panthers forward Eetu Luostarinen, and it went to Ryan Lomberg from nearby Richmond Hill, Ont., for the go-ahead goal.

Then Tavares and Marner went to work to give the Maple Leafs the lead for good.

“We got a little bit away from our game,” said Lomberg. “Although they won, there’s definitely some things we can change up. Some adjustments to be made.

“We’re not worried. We’re going to get back to work.”

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