(photo: Dinur Blum)
If there was still any question about whether the New York Islanders should have taken defenseman Victor Hedman 1st over all in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, John Tavares has silenced those critics. In a series where neither team seemed able to take control of a shift, period or game, John Tavares took over Game 6 in Brooklyn with two clutch goals. And now, his team is moving on to the second round for the first time in over 20 years – to face Hedman’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
What stands out about Tavares is not how flashy he is – perhaps the reason that he is significantly underrated around the league – but his awareness and prowess on the ice. Outside of their significance at the time of the game, neither of his goals were full of stick work or trickery. They were heady, right time, right place, right decision goals and it’s why he is the cornerstone of this franchise. His intensity and effort level throughout the series seemed to will his team to victory even when it felt as though they were overmatched by a very skilled Florida Panthers team.
After Jonathan Huberdeau gave the Panthers another first period lead, scoring his first of the Playoffs, the game became about the goalies. Thomas Greiss and Roberto Luongo stuffed chances as the teams continued the trend of back and forth hockey. It wasn’t until under a minute left in the game that another red light came on. Greiss finished with 41 saves while Luongo grabbed 49.
With Greiss out of the net for the extra attacker, the Islanders were struggling to get the puck out of their zone and in fact gave the Panthers a handful of chances on the empty net before defenseman Nick Leddy gained control of the puck. It was as Leddy rushed up the ice that Tavares could finally get off the bench, replacing a fatigued Kyle Okposo. As Leddy drove into the offensive zone and played the puck across the crease, Tavares was just crossing the blue line. Matt Martin kept the puck alive and while the Panthers and Roberto Luongo thought the puck was underneath the Florida net minder, it was Tavares who was standing at the back post to put home the rebound which had slid free.
The Barclay’s Center was electric as the first OT started, reminding many of those famous playoff runs that took place at the Nasseau Coliseum. The Islanders had numerous opportunities in the period but could not beat Luongo who stopped Alan Quine, Shane Prince and Brock Nelson on each of their respective chances. The second OT seemed to tilt the ice the other way as Florida’s young forwards – and Jaromir Jagr – came alive. Riley Smith rang one shot off the crossbar and the likes of Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck forced the Islanders goalie into some key saves.
Then it was time for Tavares. With just under 10 minutes gone in the second overtime, Okposo brought the puck into the zone along the boards before feeding Tavares who was driving through the slot. Tavares took a quick shot which Luongo was able to deflect behind the net with his leffort pad. But Tavares, always seeming to be a step faster and fresher than those around him, beat Aaron Ekblad to the puck and wrapped it around, tucking it into the net before either Brian Campbell or Luongo could get across. And pandemonium ensued.
Tavares finished the series with 5 goals and 4 assists, the highest point total on either team and only behind Huberdeau in shots. The Islanders supporting cast will need to step up offensively if they are going to make a deep run in the Playoffs. However, at this point it seems that John Tavares’ will may be enough to carry them for now. And as he goes head to head against Hedman, we may finally get a definitive answer to who is the better player.