Tavares had his first playoff hat trick and the Maple Leafs rebounded from a poor playoff start with a lopsided 7-2 victory over the Lightning on Thursday night to even the teams' first-round playoff series at a game apiece.
“We wanted to have a good response,” the 32-year-old Tavares said. “As the captain, tried to set the standard.”
Mitch Marner had two goals and an assist, William Nylander added a goal and an assist, and Zach Aston-Reese also scored for Toronto.
Morgan Rielly tied a franchise record with four assists. Auston Matthews also had two assists for the Maple Leafs, whose stars stepped up.
“That’s the type of performance you’re looking for from those guys,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We needed to have a good day today, and we did.
“Now we have a series.”
Ilya Samsonov made 20 saves for Toronto after being pulled in Tuesday's 7-3 loss.
“More fun to watch,” the Maple Leafs goaltender said. “Offensive zone, we dominate today. Defensive zone, we block ton of shots.”
Ian Cole and Corey Perry scored for the Lightning, who were without injured defensemen Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak.
“These guys are pros,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said. “We all had a close seat to what happened. They know what’s going on.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has played every minute of Lightning postseason action since 2020, allowed seven goals on 37 shots.
The series shifts to Florida, where Games 3 and 4 of the best-of-seven set are scheduled for Saturday and Monday.
“Clear slate,” Marner said. “Be ready to go.”
Facing a 0-2 deficit against an opponent that’s a perfect 10-0 all-time when winning the first two games of a series, Toronto scored 47 seconds into the opening period on a power play when Marner beat Vasilevskiy with a slap shot on the first shot.
The Maple Leafs survived two Lightning power plays thanks to Samsonov and some desperate shot blocks. Then, Tavares made it 2-0 at 12:45 when he took a pass from Rielly and fired through a screen.
Toronto took a three-goal lead on a delayed penalty when Nylander scored his second of the series at 15:08.
After being booed at every buzzer on Tuesday, the Maple Leafs received a loud ovation from their towel-waving fans as they headed to the locker room.
Toronto, which lost to Tampa in a tight first-round series last spring and hasn’t advanced in the post-season since 2004, continued to push in the second.
The Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021 and reached the championship round last year, scored at 8:58 of the second when Cole scored off the rush to make it 3-1.
The Maple Leafs wobbled a bit, but Tavares scored his second of the game at 13:14.
Toronto’s fourth line got in on the action when Aston-Reese banged home a loose puck at 15:52, before Marner added his second on a shot that glanced off a Lightning player in front of Vasilevskiy with 1:58 left in the period.
Cooper briefly considered pulling the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner to give him a breather.
“That was quickly shut down by the goalie,” Cooper said. “That’s why he’s the best in the world. He’s not coming out.
“Once again, tip your cap to that kid.”
Perry, who had a goal and two assists Tuesday, added his second of the series for the Lightning with 7:22 left. The winger then dropped the gloves with Justin Holl before both got sent off the ice.
Tavares completed his hat trick - the 12th of his career - with under five minutes remaining on a man advantage.
“Johnny was outstanding,” Rielly said. “We could be here all night talking about the great things that he brings for our team on and off the ice. His actions spoke louder than words tonight.
“We’re tied up and we’re going on the road.”
NOTES: Both teams were minus key pieces Thursday. Hedman sat out with an undisclosed injury suffered in Game 1, while Cernak didn’t dress after taking an illegal check to the head from Michael Bunting in the opener. The Toronto winger was suspended three games. Tampa center Michael Eyssimont also didn’t suit up after taking a huge hit Tuesday from Toronto's Jake McCabe. ... The Lightning did get some positive injury news with Jeannot’s return from a leg injury suffered earlier this month. ... Toronto rookie Matthew Knies made his playoff debut in place of Bunting. ... Rielly’s four assists tied the franchise record in a playoff game, joining Doug Gilmour (1994), Darryl Sittler (1977) and Ian Turnbull (1976). His three assists in the first marked the only time in team history a Toronto player registered three points in a postseason period. ... Marner’s goal 47 seconds into the first was the quickest by a Maple Leafs player in the postseason since Dan Daoust (31 seconds) in 1987.
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