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Leafs captain John Tavares struggling offensively with Lightning series tied 2-2

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TAMPA, Fla. — Lightning captain Steven Stamkos finally broke through for his team.

The Maple Leafs are still waiting for their leader to do the same.

John Tavares has yet to register a point at 5-on-5 in Toronto's first-round playoff series with Tampa Bay, which sits tied 2-2 following Sunday's 7-3 blowout loss at the hands of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions at Amalie Arena.

Not including last spring's opener against the Montreal Canadiens when he suffered a devastating injury following a scary collision that ruled him out for the rest of the Original Six matchup, the 31-year-old has one goal in his last seven post-season games.

Tavares, with three more seasons left on a contract that carries an US$11-million salary cap hit, has two assists against the Lightning — one on a power play and another with the teams playing 4-on-4 when Sunday's contest was out of reach — through four games.

"I haven't been able to produce offensively as I'd like," he said in the wake of that ugly defeat. "I would still like to create more."

The centre has done his job in the faceoff circle — he won 10 of 11 draws on Sunday — and has been a contributor in Tampa's zone once Toronto gets its cycle going.

But a regular-season issue has continued into the playoffs after Tavares finished sixth on the Leafs with 39 even-strength points (15 goals, 24 assists) in 2021-22.

Stamkos, who played minor hockey with his opposite No. 91 as a kid, scored his first goal of these playoffs a minute into Sunday to spark his team.

And with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner smothered at 5-on-5 in Games 3 and 4 when Tampa had the last change and could roll out Anthony Cirelli's line and Victor Hedman on the back end against Toronto's two offensive catalysts, the inability of the Leafs captain to impose his will has been magnified.

"He's working, he's trying," said head coach Sheldon Keefe. "It's a tough series out there."

That it certainly is. It's also been one without much game-to-game momentum.

The teams have alternated victories, with the side that scores first building at least a three-goal lead on the way to securing the win.

Toronto, which hosts Game 5 of the best-of-seven set Tuesday, has handled adversity when challenged time and again this season, but still has ghosts of recent playoff failure hanging over a club that hasn't advanced to the second round since 2004.

"We just believe in our team," Keefe said when asked why he's confident the Leafs will push back. "We believe in our team all series, all season. We've played well against (Tampa). We responded the last time coming off a loss. That's the type of series that it's been.

"We're going back home. We know we have to be better, and we will be."

Tavares is also confident the Leafs will get back on track.

"Just know the way we've played for many stretches throughout this series, even for parts of (Game 4), and certainly mostly in the games that we've won," he said. "A chance to regroup."

The No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL draft, who signed with his hometown club in free agency in July 2018, said Toronto wasn't ready for Tampa's early thrust in Game 4.

"They were extremely aggressive and pressing up extremely hard early," Tavares said. "Our level of execution and detail needs to be strong through that to break through that pressure. That allows us to really get our game going and get them chasing.

"We have to do a better job."

Another area of concern is the number of penalties Toronto continues to take — not so much the scrums after the whistle Keefe predicted before the series, but rather stick and obstruction fouls.

The Leafs had been flagged for a league-high 32 playoff infractions through Sunday night, four more than the Lightning.

"It's been pretty tight," Toronto defenceman Jake Muzzin said of the officiating standard compared to past post-seasons. "We should know that by now."

They also haven't got enough from Tavares, who in fairness was far from the only culprit in Sunday's embarrassing no-show, as the scene shifts back to Scotiabank Arena.

"I'd like to find more and generate more," he said. "No doubt I expect more and want to be better."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 9, 2022.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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