- Associated Press - Saturday, March 2, 2019

TORONTO (AP) - When John Tavares skated onto the ice during the introductions of starters Saturday night, his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates peeled off to allow him to stand alone in the Scotiabank Arena spotlight.

Two nights after the ugly reception the former Islanders captain received in his return to New York, Tavares was serenaded with wild applause and a standing ovation.

And then he gave the home fans reason to cheer again.

Tavares had a goal and two assists on a night Toronto fans dubbed “TavaresDayTO,” and the Maple Leafs beat the Buffalo Sabres 5-2 Saturday.

“It was a pretty special moment, certainly to be recognized like that and get the support of the city and the fans,” Tavares said. “Shows you why it’s special to be a Maple Leaf. Definitely got some goosebumps, and a nice little boost there.

“Nice to do it in a win, and come home on a Saturday and play the way we did.”

Mitch Marner also had a goal and two assists, and Morgan Rielly, Nic Petan and Nikita Zaitsev each scored as the Maple Leafs won for the fourth time in five games. Frederik Andersen made 35 saves.

Jason Pominville and Conor Sheary scored for Buffalo, and Linus Ullmark stopped 27 shots.

The Leafs were back at Scotiabank Arena after losing 6-1 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.

“I thought it was great, but I also thought the people in New York showed the passion they have for John the other night,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. “To me, when you get booed on the road, you must be something special.”

Tavares 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 6-minute mark scoring off a loose puck in the crease that trickled through Andersen’s pads. Sheary, who scored Buffalo’s OT winner a night earlier, then put the Sabres ahead with a wrist shot off a bouncing puck.

It was all Maple Leafs after that.

Rielly notched his 16th 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.

“Unreal pass, I was yelling super loud, when we got to the bench he said ‘good yell,’” Petan said. “It was a phenomenal pass. Didn’t really think about it too much, just smacked it and it went in.”

Petan had only played 13 games for Winnipeg this season, sitting for long stretches. His goal was his first in more than a year.

“Felt good to be out there again, and the goal was the cherry on top,” Petan said.

Zaitsev padded the Leafs‘ lead 55 seconds before the second intermission when he fired a hard pass that deflected off Sabres defenseman Brandon Montour and into the net.

Marner’s empty-net goal came with just under two minutes to play.

Marner was pleased with how his team bounced back after Thursday’s emotional loss, and praised the Leafs fans for their support of Tavares.

“It was great seeing the fans interact with him like that and give him that ovation after that night in New York,” Marner said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the way we wanted to play.

“It wasn’t the game we wanted and it was pretty harsh on him … All the (negative) stuff that you can hear, it doesn’t matter how strong-willed you are in your head, it’s going to affect you one way or another. That’s why I think it’s so special to come home and give him that love he deserves.”

NOTES: The Leafs, third in the Atlantic Division, were missing defensemen 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 lost to Toronto for the third time this season, including last week’s 5-3 loss Monday in Toronto on trade deadline day.


Sabres: Host Edmonton on Sunday night.

Maple Leafs: At Calgary on Monday night to open a three-game trip to Western Canada.


More AP NHL: www.apnews.com/NHL and www.twitter.com/AP_Sports

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