John Tavares Returns to Long Island: Part III


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John Tavares stepping onto the Nassau Coliseum ice will never be just another game. That more than anything was proven on Wednesday night, when JT and the Maple Leafs came to the Island for the third time in the 18 months since he left the Islanders.  

Last year, the Islanders took the season series 2–1, splitting the two games at the Coliseum. This year, they travel north of the border twice, with Wednesday being their only home game against the former Captain. They won again, this time by a score of 5–4. Tavares scored his second goal against the Islanders in the four meetings. Last year’s affairs went the way of the Islanders for the most part, as did regular-season standings position and playoff finish.

The 4–0 late-December victory was, for me, the moment the tides changed for the Islanders last season. Mat Barzal’s hat trick and the 36-save shutout for Robin Lehner on Hockey Night in Canada proved to the world what Islander fans had come to find out through the first three months of the season: They didn’t need John Tavares. 

Fast forward to Feb. 28, a game that was circled on calendars across Long Island since the game got moved from the Barclays Center to Nassau before the season. The boos were loud, plastic snakes were flying and the Islanders rolled 6–1. The events were a major talking point the next day, whether fans took it “too far” or were “unfair” to their former captain. The tribute video was drowned out by boos, and only the Islander players were applauding by the end of it. 

Then Apr. 1 rolled around. The Isles had already clinched a playoff spot, something Toronto had yet to do. JT brought his boys back to the Coliseum to a chorus of boos, not as loud as the first night but loud enough. I was in the building that night, and it was obvious every time he got on the ice. Tavares scored, the Leafs won 2–1 and clinched a playoff spot that night. Pretty much the worst-case scenario for the Isles, but in the end it didn’t really matter. The Islanders had done so well that year without him. They went out and clinched home ice five days later against Washington. 

Tavares and the Leafs went out in seven games to Boston in the first round, while his former squad swept the Penguins, but were knocked out of the second round by Carolina. This season, both teams wanted to improve on their playoff finishes from last year.  Tavares was named captain of the Maple Leafs, the Islanders made some minor changes and all geared up to make playoff runs once more.

Honestly, I hope there’s a day when Tavares gets a full, genuine standing ovation from the Coliseum (or Belmont) faithful. It’s okay to hate him. I still do too. But to not appreciate what he brought to a lost and depressed franchise would be short-sighted. The Islanders do not need John Tavares to succeed; they’ve proved that over the last 100 games without him. They have a team that can compete and defeat his new team; they’ve proved that by taking three of the first four matchups against him. John Tavares is long out of the mind of the Islander players and coaches. But for the fans, the wound is still fresh, and they’re going to let him know throughout the rest of his career.