Tavares healthy, ready for another Stanley Cup shot with Maple Leafs

Because he has very few memories of it.

Three hundred and forty-six days after going on a stretcher with a concussion and knee injury, the Maple Leafs captain will lead his team against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of Round 1 of Eastern Conference (7:30 a.m. ET; ESPN2, CBC, SN, TVAS, BSSUN). For Tavares, the experience left him seizing the chance to continue playing the game he loves.

“I think you get perspective through something like this, just another opportunity,” Tavares said. “I’m really lucky and looking forward to it. It’s a special time of year and I’m very lucky to have this opportunity and I don’t take it for granted.

“Unfortunately I’ve been through something like that, but that’s what it is and (I) just accepted it. (You) move on and try to improve. (It) just gives you appreciation for play the game and do what we can do.”

[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Lightning series coverage]

The 31-year-old suffered the injury in Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup First Round against the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto. He was able to skate on his own a week later, but was in no condition to rejoin the series and watched helplessly as his Maple Leafs lost a 3-1 series lead and were knocked out by the Canadiens.

Twelve months later, in relatively good health, he aims to help his team overtake Tampa Bay, which is chasing its third straight Stanley Cup championship. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff since 2004.

“Obviously, obviously a very good team,” Tavares said. “We all know what they’ve achieved over the last few years, the depth they have, the firepower, the goalkeeping. So obviously they’re very deep, very proven and one hell of a test for us. “

Tavares knows all about the test. When he arrived at training camp, people wondered if there would be any repercussions from the injuries he had suffered earlier in the year. He responded by producing a season in which he finished fourth with the Maple Leafs with 76 points (27 goals, 49 assists) in 79 games.

More importantly, his diligence in overcoming adversity was an example of leadership that his teammates embraced.

“As a teammate, and I’ll speak for all of us, that’s exactly what you expect,” said the defender Morgan Rielly mentioned. “He’s an extremely motivated guy. He works extremely hard to really focus on his craft.

“He’s taken a long time. Obviously it’s extremely difficult to get serious injuries on more than one level. So for him, he has to put in the time and stay focused, go all the way, come back with a positive attitude and being our leader, that says a lot.”

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Sam Gainer was in shock.

The forward was in Michigan with some of his Detroit Red Wings teammates watching Game 1 of the Canadiens-Maple Leafs series last season on May 20, 2021. Tavares has been one of Gagner’s closest friends since joining are kids playing on a backyard rink in Oakville. , Ontario.

“When you suddenly see him lying on the ice, you get scared,” Gagner said. “You’re scared for him. And you’re scared for his family.”

Tavares was injured when he fell near the blue line after being checked by the Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot then was hit in the head by the Montreal striker’s left knee Corey Perry at 10:29 of the first period. The collision was accidental but still left a shaken Perry to say the sight of Tavares motionless on the ice had made him sick.

“It wasn’t until they pulled him off the ice and he gave a thumbs up that you let out a big sigh,” Gagner said. “But you still didn’t know the magnitude of it.”

Tavares was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital, where he was examined by the facility’s neurosurgical team and the Maple Leafs’ medical director. All the while, his loved ones were understandably scared and upset.

“It was very worrisome,” John Tavares, his uncle and the National Lacrosse League’s all-time leading scorer, recalled Sunday. “When you see a player like that, let alone a family member, you are concerned about health and safety. And here he was also a new father. All you wanted was to make sure that he would make it.”

After spending the night, Tavares was home the next day under the supervision of Maple Leafs doctors. The knee injury was expected to sideline him for at least two weeks, and no timeline has been given for a return from the concussion.

“We were just happy he was okay and we were told he could have a normal life and be able to play again,” Uncle John said. “But when I spoke to John, he couldn’t remember what happened.”

Six days after the incident, Tavares was back at the Maple Leafs practice facility. A day later, he was back on ice skating on his own.

“Initially when something like this happens you want him to take his time because knowing John he wants to come out and help his team,” Gagner said. “But with an injury like that, it’s scary. There is life after hockey to worry about.

“Having said that, it was great to see him training this summer while we were hanging out. And I’m really happy to see him back and playing well now, playing so well. He’s a guy with character and he cares a lot. He wants nothing more than to win a Stanley Cup in Toronto.”

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If he can help Toronto win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967, Tavares and his teammates will have to somehow get past Tampa Bay.

For Tavares, that means trying to eliminate his childhood teammate Steven Stamkosthe captain of the Lightning.

Tavares and Stamkos started playing minor hockey against each other when they were nine years old each. Most Memorable Game: Each had a hat trick in a game in which Stamkos and the Markham Waxers beat Tavares and the Mississauga Senators, 5-3.

They became teammates at age 11 with the Ontario Blues, a summer team that also included future NHL players. Alex Pietrangelo (Vegas Golden Knights), Michel Del Zotto (Ottawa Senators), Cody Hodgson (retired) and Michael Hutchinson (now with Toronto of the American Hockey League). The stacked team went 49-0-1 over the next two seasons, the only loss coming in a game in which Tavares failed to score in a sudden-death shootout.

Fast forward nearly two decades. In 2019, Tavares watched as St. Louis Blues captain Pietrangelo was awarded the Stanley Cup by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. In 2020 and 2021, he saw Stamkos do the same with Tampa Bay.

Is he jealous of his two friends and former teammates? How did he feel watching them hoist the Cup, something he always strives to do?

“I don’t think about it as much from that point of view,” Tavares said. “It’s more internal. Ever since I was a kid, you’ve dreamed of playing in the NHL and seeing a lot of great players, great teams, winning the Stanley Cup and how hard it is from a distance. Now you can be part of his quest.”

In 2016, the Maple Leafs made a big pitch for Stamkos, a pending unrestricted free agent, during the pre-free agency recruiting period. They brought in Toronto Mayor John Tory to try to convince him to go home. Michael B. Medline, then CEO of Canadian Tire, was also on hand to try to show the sponsorship opportunities that existed. But Stamkos wanted to stay in Tampa Bay and signed an eight-year, $68 million contract.

Two years later, the Maple Leafs were a very different team. They had chosen the center Auston Matthews with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, and young players like Rielly and a forward Michael Marner were beginning to evolve. When Tavares became a free agent, Toronto made a big throw.

“We talked back then before free agency,” Stamkos said. “He was very open to discussing it. The situation in Toronto was very different from when they sued me. I just told him he had to do what was best for him and his family.”

Tavares, who played the first nine seasons of his career with the New York Islanders after being the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, did just that. He signed a seven-year contract worth $77 million with the Maple Leafs on July 1, 2018 and has since had 274 points (119 goals, 155 assists) in 280 games.

“It worked for both of us, don’t you think?” Stamkos said.

With one exception, of course: Tavares is still on the hunt for the elusive Stanley Cup ring that his childhood friends possess.

“Of course you would like to win the Cup every year and as soon as possible,” he said. “But everyone’s journey is different. So, I’m taking care of my business as best I can and working hard to get this opportunity.

“It starts [Monday].”

If Tavares can defeat Stamkos and the Lightning like he did 12 months ago, anything seems possible.

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