Toronto Maple Leafs forward William Nylander (88) celebrates his goal with forward Auston Matthews (34) and Morgan Rielly (44) during thrid period NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, May 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Minus Tavares, Matthews leads the way as Leafs down Habs 5-1 in Game 2 to even series

TORONTO — Auston Matthews and his teammates watched in stunned horror as a bloodied John Tavares was stretchered off the ice Thursday following a terrifying collision.

Given a chance to regroup minus their captain and leader, the Maple Leafs’ best player dragged Toronto into the fight an emotional 48 hours later.

Matthews scored the go-ahead goal and added two assists Saturday as the Leafs defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-1 to even their first-round playoff series 1-1.

“It means a lot, not only for the guys in the locker room, but for John himself,” the 23-year-old sniper said. “He’s such a big part of this team.

“When something really scary and serious goes down like it did the other night, the response from the group was unbelievable.”

Released from hospital Friday after undergoing a CT scan and an MRI, Tavares is out indefinitely, but Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said before Game 2 the veteran centre avoided structural damage to his head, neck and spine when he took an accidental knee to the face from Canadiens winger Corey Perry.

Tavares messaged and spoke with teammates Thursday night from hospital to let them know he was on the mend and to encourage them to push on without him.

“His leadership of our team, despite his situation, didn’t stop,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “That really helped put our guys in the right headspace.”

William Nylander, with a goal and an assist, Jason Spezza, Rasmus Sandin and Alexander Kerfoot, into an empty net, also scored for Toronto, which got 22 saves from Jack Campbell. Mitch Marner chipped in with two helpers as the Leafs’ struggling power play connected on two opportunities in the same game for the first time since March 3.

“The only way we can see John is if we win,” Spezza said. “It’s incredible how selfless he is. He’s trying to calm us down, even the night it happened.

“We care deeply about Johnny and we want to do well for him. We’re gonna try to win as many games as we can so we can get him back in the lineup.”

A healthy scratch for Game 1, Jesperi Kotkaniemi replied for Montreal. Carey Price stopped 29 shots as the best-of-seven matchup between these storied Original Six rivals now shifts to the Bell Centre for Games 3 and 4.

The Canadiens took the opener by a 2-1 scoreline on the back of Price’s 35-save performance and Paul Byron’s spectacular short-handed winner.

Tied 1-1 after 20 minutes Saturday, Toronto took its first lead of the series at 5:15 of the second period when Matthews — the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner with an NHL-best 41 goals — buried a Justin Holl rebound on an odd-man rush.

Matthews, who also won 80 per cent of his faceoffs as part of his standout performance, had seven goals and 14 points in 10 games against Montreal, and has now scored 20 times in 26 combined career outings versus the Canadiens.

The Leafs’ struggling power play, which went 0 for 4 in Game 1 and also surrendered Byron’s highlight-reel effort, was thwarted on two more man-advantage opportunities thanks to big stops from Price on Matthews and Spezza before Marner dangled around the goaltender only to be denied by Joel Armia in the Canadiens’ crease.

But the North Division’s No. 1 seed got another crack when Kotkaniemi went off for cross-checking, and Sandin blasted a one-timer through a crowd for the rookie defenceman’s first-career playoff goal at 13:20.

Montreal interim head coach Dominique Ducharme curiously challenged for goalie interference on Joe Thornton despite there not appearing to be much contact, but the call stood after the referees took a long look.

Television cameras caught Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin in discussion with coaches in Montreal’s private suite in the aftermath of the goal, but Ducharme said he made the final decision.

“We could see clearly that Thornton was touching (Price’s) stick,” he said. “We had an angle where it was conclusive. It’s my call, but everyone agreed that we had to challenge it.”

“I didn’t know what the challenge was to be honest,” Sandin said. “Just hoping for them to call it a goal. I was a little nervous to be honest, because we were just talking about I haven’t scored in a year and a half or something like that.

“Super happy.”

The failed challenge handed Toronto another power play, although the Canadiens survived to only be down two heading to the third.

“The momentum shifted in the second period,” Ducharme said in reference to the officiating. “We didn’t change it and the Leafs didn’t change it.”

Toronto got its fifth man advantage midway through the third, and after Matthews ripped a one-timer off the post, the puck bounced kindly to Nylander for him to bag his second of the series at 8:50.

Keefe said Montreal’s decision to make the series as physical as possible contributed to the Canadiens being whistled for six straight penalties.

“They want to make it a war,” he said. “If you’re going to do that, you’re at risk of getting penalties called against you.

“That’s our job as a power play to make them pay.”

The Canadiens pulled Price for an extra attacker with 6:30 left in regulation, but Kerfoot iced it into the empty net late.

The first Montreal-Toronto playoff series since 1979, the Leafs picked up their first post-season win over the Canadiens since Game 6 of the 1967 Stanley Cup final, which secured the franchise’s last title.

The home side had a couple of good early chances, but the Canadiens opened the scoring at 7:17 of the first when Kotkaniemi — in the lineup for the injured Jake Evans — shovelled home a loose puck.

Toronto responded at 12:25 following a terrific shift in Montreal’s zone.

A pass by Canadiens winger Artturi Lehkonen went off the referee’s skate before forechecking Leafs defenceman Zach Bogosian fed a puck in front that a hard-charging Spezza, who was coming off the bench, stole from teammate Wayne Simmonds and wired shortside on Price to get the Leafs headed in the right direction.

“The guys just refocused,” Keefe said of his team’s response to the Tavares injury. “You’re winning for him, you’re winning for all the guys that don’t get the play, you’re winning for the guy next to you in the room or the guy on the bench. There’s all sorts of reasons to compete.

“We have another one.”

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