There’s a cliché in sports that in big games, your best players have to be your best players.
As the regular season speeds towards a dramatic finish, each game becomes bigger and bigger. And in the most recent and therefore biggest game to date, the Islanders fell behind 2-0 in the first period Thursday in Toronto before their brightest star delivered.
John Tavares set up Brad Boyes’ goal, putting the Islanders on the board, was on the ice for the tying goal, and then tallied his 25th and 26th markers of the season to put the Islanders in front 4-2 before the second period was over. Tavares garnered “First Star” honors in his hometown, followed by his linemates and fellow Ontario natives Matt Moulson and Boyes in the 5-3 win.
“Guys are creating a lot of space and I get the easy job of getting a lot of opportunities and trying to put the puck in the net,” Tavares said. “I take pride in getting opportunities and capitalizing and producing offensively. It was a good game by our line and by some of the other lines as well.”
Tavares will always credit his teammates when discussing his achievements, prioritizing team success over his own accomplishments. But that hasn’t slowed the recent chatter in press boxes across the league regarding Tavares’ candidacy for one specific individual honor.
The Hart Memorial Trophy is an annual award given to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team. The winner is selected in a poll of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association in all NHL cities at the end of the regular season. The league’s de facto “MVP” Trophy, the only Islander to ever take home the award was Bryan Trottier in 1979.
After Friday’s team practice, Head Coach Jack Capuano lobbied for his star center to get some consideration for the prestigious hardware.
“He’s an elite player and right now he’s carrying our team,” Capuano said. “Last year and this year he’s been the catalyst of our hockey club on and off the ice. He’s a good leader for us in the room and his resume speaks for itself.”
While the Islanders’ surge into the postseason fold through March and April has been a full team effort, it stands to reason that the one skater most associated with the franchise is the one most associated with the team’s recent success. The team has gone 20-6-1 when Tavares finds the score sheet, compared to 3-10-4 when he is held scoreless.
Matt Moulson, who has skated alongside Tavares the past four seasons, says the 22-year-old’s leadership in a room full of older players stands out.
“If I had a vote, I’d vote for him,” Moulson said. “He’s an extraordinary player. He works hard to make sure he gets better day in and day out and he’s determined to be the best and make this team the best. The Hart is for the most valuable guy on your team and he’s right up there. He’s a big leader for us on the ice, off the ice and on the score sheet.”
Tavares season-by-season numbers have increased steadily since his 2009-10 rookie campaign as his career trajectory arcs upward. This year, his 26 goals through 43 games rank third in the NHL, just two behind Alex Ovechkin’s league-leading 28. He would be on target for 49 goals over an 82-game schedule, a pace he has maintained throughout the season and one unmatched on Long Island since Pierre Turgeon lit the lamp 58 times in 1992-93.
But the Islanders assistant captain would gladly exchange a shot at the Richard Trophy (most goals) for playoff games at Nassau Coliseum. He’s happier to be a part of a team playing meaningful (and good) hockey this April. The Islanders are 7-0-2 during the month and 10-1-2 over their last 13 as they tighten their grip on the franchise’s first playoff appearance in six years.
“We’re gaining more experience and we’ve got this opportunity,” Tavares said of the Islanders playoff chances. “We understand what it takes on a nightly basis to be successful and the style of game we have to play as a team, as well as how we have to prepare as individuals. We’ve found that success and I think that breeds confidence in our locker room.”
The Islanders fourth-to-last game of the season is, once again, their most important. A 3:00 p.m. showdown with ninth-place Winnipeg on Saturday could very well determine their immediate future. The Jets are riding a five-game winning streak and are tied with the eighth-place Rangers, three points behind the Islanders. Frankly, of the teams on the outside of the playoff race, the Jets are the biggest threat to the possibility of hockey in May on Long Island.
“It’s going to be a special environment Saturday,” Tavares. “Anytime you play there it’s a great atmosphere – the fans are passionate and it’s one of the best hockey cities across the league. It’s going to be the closest we experience to a playoff game in the regular season. It’s a huge game.”
A regulation win, and the Islanders could have a five-point buffer on Winnipeg with three games to play. And while it wouldn’t technically clinch a playoff spot, it would put the Islanders right on the brink. A regulation loss, on the other hand, would have the Jets breathing down the Islanders necks, just one point back.
It’s the biggest game of the season. And Tavares is ready for the stage.
“We haven’t clinched anything,” Tavares said. “With four games left there’s still a lot up for grabs. Some people look at it as a four-pointer. We have to be at our best.”
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