When the New York Islanders needed a timely goal or a huge spark in their first round matchup against the Florida Panthers, they turned to their captain. John Tavares, drafted first overall in 2009, has been the face of the franchise since day one. He was named captain immediately after Mark Streit left for the Philadelphia Flyers in free agency, gaining an official title to go along with his already clear position of leadership.
In 2013, New York made the postseason for the first time since 1994 on the back of Tavares’ 47 points in 48 games. In 2015, New York reached the playoffs once again, this time behind Tavares’ 86 points in 82 games, one shy of the Art Ross winner Jamie Benn. This year, they earned another postseason appearance with Tavares again leading the way, scoring 70 points in 78 games.
The postseason was where Tavares was unable to make his mark until now. While he was by no means disappointing in his previous playoff appearances, he, and the rest of his team, failed to reach that extra-level to carry them past the first round.
First came a matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by the experienced and lethal Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Tavares was getting his first taste of the postseason, while Crosby and Malkin were playing in their sixth postseason each.
By the time he played his first game against the pair, the two had combined for 212 playoff points. Pittsburgh, led by Crosby and Malkin, used their experience to move past Tavares and the Islanders, despite his contribution of 5 points and a game-winning goal.
2015 was a different story. The “first time playoff participants” excuse was no longer valid, and New York had played well against their first round foes, the Washington Capitals throughout the season. Tavares had the best offensive season of his career in the regular season, and looked primed for a postseason breakout.
The first signature moment of John Tavares’ playoff career came in Game 3, when a mere 14 seconds into overtime he slipped the puck past Braden Holtby to give the Islanders the win and a 2-1 series lead.
Tavares, who had 3 points in the first 3 games of the series, would slow down in the next pair of games as the Islanders lost their 2-1 series lead and fell behind 3-2. On the brink of elimination, Tavares scored an early goal and assisted on what would be the game-winning goal later on in the last postseason game in Nassau Coliseum history.
New York tied the series up 3-3 thanks to the performance of their captain, and one more victory would have sent them to the next round.
Perhaps what happened in Game 7 served as a catalyst for the releasing of the beast inside Tavares in 2016 against the Panthers. Simply put, Tavares, and the Islanders as a whole, failed to show up in Washington, losing a 2-1 affair. Tavares didn’t get a single shot on net while his team managed only 11 in the contest, going down without much of a fight.
The talk of the town heading into the 2016 postseason about the Islanders was their failure to win a postseason series since 1993.
In Game 1, Tavares loudly announced that he was here to play, tallying a goal and two assists in a 5-4 victory. Despite losing Game 2, New York received another goal from their captain, which was quickly followed by a Game 3 win with a pair of helpers from Tavares.
He scored another goal in another loss in Game 4, followed by a pointless outing in an Islanders win in Game 5. Even when Tavares wasn’t scoring, he was the best player on the ice, consistently dominating the possession game and using his speed and prowess to drive the Panthers defense into frenzies.
Then came Game 6. With the Islanders facing questions of whether or not they could take the next step and finally win a first round series, Tavares scored the game-tying goal with only 54 seconds remaining.
A loose puck was seen by no one other than Tavares, who slotted it into an empty net. The game went into overtime and then double overtime, when he single-handedly ended the series to advance the Islanders to the next round.
Tavares took a wrister that bounced off of Roberto Luongo’s pads, but rebounded wildly. Tavares found the puck in traffic, wrapped it around and then into the net, and the Islanders were onto the next round. Without his nine points in six games it’s unlikely the Islanders would either still be playing in the postseason.
A superstar for a long time, Tavares has finally proved that he’s got what it takes to be a superstar in the playoffs, too.