By Jeff Capellini
Remember earlier in the season when John Tavares looked very much mortal?
Yeah, that was funny.
He looks like the best player in the sport right now.
Tavares had a series that will go down in Islanders lore, notching nine points in the six-game victory over the relentless Florida Panthers. It was a watershed moment for the new era of this all-too-often woebegone franchise. Gone is all the talk of how this team has never been ready for prime time. Forever banished in the wind is all the lamenting of failed promise and 23 years of opening-round futility, despite the Isles forever building for precisely the type of moment we all witnessed Sunday night at Barclays Center.
The Islanders, as in the team that has been under construction in earnest since 2008, have finally turned a corner. And as a wise man once said, the future isn’t written yet. No one’s is. Your future is whatever you make it.
Following Tavares’ ascension Sunday night into the true rarefied air of the NHL’s elite, there’s no telling what’s in store for the Islanders as they move forward not only the rest of this spring, but in seasons to come.
The Isles desperately needed to shed the not-quite-ready label that had dogged them for the last several years. Tavares, along with signed-on-the-cheap goaltender Thomas Greiss, made sure that the constant talk of potential would finally take a back seat to the realities of the here and now.
“It’s time we had to get over this hump and push forward,” Tavares said. “I don’t think we tried to put too much pressure on ourselves knowing we weren’t here for all of that, but certainly a lot us have been here for a while and it was time for us.”
This team may not be a powerhouse, and it may not win a championship this season, but it is no longer the maddening concoction of too many draft picks and waiver-wire pickups and too few veterans with know-how. It is a legitimate upper-echelon hockey team, one that I’m pretty sure no team still alive in the playoffs wants to face.
No one exemplifies the Islanders’ resiliency more than their captain, who before Sunday was the most underappreciated athlete in New York sports. Tavares struggled through a brutal first half of the regular season, notching just 34 points in 44 games. Talk of just what exactly was wrong with the 2009 No. 1 overall pick ranged from whispers about his health to outright screams that his linemates always seemed to be substandard.
All along, there were many who said Tavares had the pedigree to be a true superstar without the need of star wingers to his right and left. While it’s true more skill on his line definitely would not have hurt, Tavares ultimately entered another stratosphere on the strength of a solid final 38 games and then an unreal opening-round playoff series.
Tavares finished with five goals and four assists against the Panthers. He was everywhere. And when Florida effectively took away much of the Isles’ secondary scoring through use of a frustrating 1-4 trap, Tavares picked his team up in the offensive end and carried it into the second round, defying literally every pundit. No one picked the Islanders to beat the Panthers. Too many underestimated them, perhaps because they viewed New York as too much of a one-man team.
That kind of logic doesn’t fly anymore because Tavares has raised his game to a level where he’s simply impossible to cover. He’s a threat every second he’s on the ice. He will be the best player on the ice during the Isles’ matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
And when your superstar plays like a superstar and your goalie plays out of his mind, the matchups tend to take on less emphasis.
As the third period dragged on Sunday night, it was looking more and more like the Islanders were destined to play another Game 7. They were on the verge of throwing away a gigantic opportunity. They played extremely well in the first period, only to trail 1-0 at the intermission on a fluke goal by the Panthers’ Jonathan Huberdeau. Despite the deficit, it was fair to expect the Isles to carry over their intensity into the middle period.
Then it all disappeared. Florida dominated the next 20 minutes and likely would have put the game away had it not been for Greiss, who would end the series with an insane .944 save percentage and 1.79 goals-against average.
The third period started in much the same fashion, with the Isles tentative, as if the moment seemed just too big for them. But all throughout the series head coach Jack Capuano’s team got better as games went on. That’s really the only way to explain not having too many leads in regulation, yet finding a way to win three games in overtime.
Tavares’ tying goal illustrated why he’s an elite scorer. With less than a minute to play, defenseman Nick Leddy used his speed to get around the right side of the Florida defense. He then shoveled a sharp-angle backhand toward the net that goalie Roberto Luongo pushed in the direction of Nikolay Kulemin. The Isles’ forward got a piece of a backhand that Luongo appeared to smother.
But in what was possibly a first for NHL officiating, there was no quick whistle. The puck squirted out from underneath Luongo and was sitting in the blue paint just waiting for someone to come cruising.
That someone ended up being Tavares, who was surveying the situation from just to the right of the left faceoff dot. With seemingly everyone having lost sight of the puck, Tavares bolted in and tapped in the rebound, setting the stage for more overtime hysteria.
The winning goal midway through the second sudden death stanza will undoubtedly be viewed on a continuous loop by Islanders fans for days. Tavares took a short pass from Kyle Okposo and snapped a shot from the right faceoff dot. Luongo did all he could to keep it out, but the puck ricocheted back to Tavares, who deftly stickhandled around the net before completing the wrap-around and setting off a wild celebration.
“When I got the rebound I realized how far he came out,” Tavares said. “I had a good step and just tried to — not take my time — but really make sure I had control of the puck. And obviously once you get around the net, make sure it goes in.”
JT’s thunder set up a date with the Lightning. Yes, I also write headlines for a living.
While the Islanders may not command too many back pages of certain tabloids not named Newsday going forward, they are the only local hockey team still playing. They have a chance to not only advance further in this wild and wacky tournament, and capture more of the city and beyond’s attention in the process. But they also have the opportunity to showcase themselves to other players around the league.
While trying to guess what general manager Garth Snow will do this summer to improve this club is a waste of time at this point, the Isles potentially making a long run and showing off Barclays Center’s volume and intensity along the way can only help this team further dispel some misconceptions about the franchise, the arena and the borough.
And let’s face it, you’d be an idiot if you chose not to play with Tavares. He seems destined to one day rule this sport.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet