Shortened season had provided the Islanders a chance to turn around their franchise in 48 games.
Maybe the writing was on the wall nearly four years ago when John Tavares first donned a blue and orange Islanders jersey. No flashy ceremony to say “New York hockey is back," but a fresh face for a failing franchise. More likely, you probably viewed the first overall pick of the 2009 draft as another future star who would toil away in a bad organization like Rick Nash (Columbus), Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta) and Rick DiPietro (New York Islanders) before him. With seven games left in the 2013 season, The Islanders officially controls their own destiny to the postseason, and their young alternate captain is the reason why.
As a showdown with the Rangers approaches on Saturday, there is reason to believe that the Blueshirts won’t wipe the floor with their rival New York franchise. The two teams have battled to a pair of overtime games (split 1-1) and a 4-1, Rangers win. The old barn in Uniondale should be packed for a playoff race altering game. The only problem for the Isles is that the jeers of “Potvin Sucks!” will likely drown out the cheers of the Islander faithful at poorly attended Nassau Coliseum.
I feel for Islanders fans, I really do. Their beloved team is maneuvering their way out of Nassau county as fast as they can, where the votes of Islanders fans were drowned out by those who either don’t trust Charles Wang or fail to see the value in a new arena on the Island. Those that did want the new arena will watch while the team relocates to Brooklyn like the Nets did before them. But those fans seem to be in the minority, with an average attendance of 13,057, the lowest in the league. Perhaps that’s why New York is the only team in the current playoff picture with a home record below .500.
But even with the home crowds often against them, in crucial divisional contests and turmoil outside the dressing room, John Tavares has made himself a dark horse contender in the Hart Trophy race. He has 24 goals placing him 3rd in the league, while his 42 points are 10th in the NHL. The 22 year old has 4 game winning goals, good for 12th. He also has two shootout ending lamp lighters, one against the Rangers and another against upstart Toronto. So you could argue he has 6 game winners in his team’s 21 victories.
Furthermore, his team is one of only two playoff bound teams (by current standings) to have a negative goal differential, the other is the underachieving Red Wings. His team has allowed more goals than any other team currently in playoff position, due in part to Evgeni Nabokov’s hapless backups, who are 1-5 in the cage with a 3.5 GAA. Tavares plays in front of small crowds with little excitement in a lame duck arena that may well be razed in a few years. But an 8-1-1 record over the last ten games has put New York in a position no one expected. In that time, Tavares has 6 tallies, a game winner, and three assists while going +5 on the ice.
And while those numbers are solid, they’ve been this good all year. The talented center is easily on pace to shatter his previous goal scoring mark of 31, set last year, had this been a full season. He’s second in the NHL in power play goals, with 9. He was asked to score to keep his team in games, and the Mississauga, Ontario native has done it.
Tavares may not be the best option for the Hart Trophy in his own market. After all, where would the borderline offensively inept Rangers be without Vezina contender Henrik Lundqvist? But the most valuable player to his team discussion would place the Islanders forward in the conversation with the Rangers goaltender.
With a key win over Boston earlier this week, the Islanders are in business with time running out in the regular season. Josh Bailey scored two of his nine goals in the 2-1 win, and Evgeni Nabokov was brilliant. Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson have carried the team at times with 13 goals each and Nabokov and team captain Mark Streit deserve credit, but the star of this squad remains their young “A”.
Tavares certainly isn’t the best player in the league, but is he the biggest reason the Islanders are on the cusp of a postseason berth for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
Mike Watts covers the NHL (Rangers) and MLS (Red Bulls) for WFUV Sports.