John Tavares is the unquestioned leader of the Islanders, so much so that on Wednesday night, he was announced as one of three finalists for the Mark Messier Leadership Award, given to the NHL player who displays the sort of leadership once demonstrated by the former Rangers captain.
So Tavares is looking to do what comes naturally in a crucial Game 4 against the Lightning on Friday night: lead by example. He’s gone without a point the past two games after posting 11 through his first seven postseason games this spring, but it’s hardly from a lack of opportunity.
“You’ve got to stay with it. It happens,” the Islanders’ captain said after practice on Thursday at Iceworks. “You have to find a way to overcome it. We scored enough goals to win [Game 3], we just have to defend well. They play right to the end. They’ve obviously been through this last season; you can tell throughout the playoffs that they play right to the end. Not that we’re not, but we have to be prepared and make it difficult on them.”
Playoff experience is the only thing missing from Tavares’ lengthy resume at this point. Game 4 will be his 23rd career postseason game, a number that pales in comparison with Tavares’ two fellow Messier Award finalists, the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin (82 playoff games and counting) and the Predators’ Shea Weber (55 and counting).
But even after a decidedly up-and-down regular season in which Tavares needed 10 points in his final four games to finish with 70, No. 91 has been the focal point for the Isles in getting this far.
The Lightning has tried to match its top defenseman, Victor Hedman, against Tavares, and in Game 2 in Tampa, the home side stymied Tavares well. Game 3 was a different story. Jack Capuano used the last change on home ice to get Tavares away from Hedman, and the Isles were the dominant team through the first half of the game, especially at even strength.
But Hedman ended up with a goal and two assists, including on the overtime winner, and Capuano said he might stop caring so much about that matchup.
“I tried that and Hedman had one [goal] and two [assists],” Capuano said. “You’ve either got a guy who spends a lot of time in the offensive zone [in Tavares] or you worry about your matchups. We’ve had a real successful team the last three, four years on the road because we don’t worry about the matchups there. We’ve been a four-line team and I’m not that worried about 77 vs. 91. We tried to stay away from it a lot of the game and we lost the game.”
Tavares also showed some of that leadership after Game 3 by shouldering the blame for the Lightning’s tying goal with 38.4 seconds to go in regulation. Nikita Kucherov found room in the middle of the Isles’ prevent defense, sliding past Tavares to bury the deflating goal.
“For sure you think about it a little bit, especially right after the game, but you’ve got to move on and think about tomorrow,” Tavares said. “That’s where everyone’s focus is. Everyone knows it’s done with, it happened, take the things we did well and correct the things we could do better.”
Thomas Hickey isn’t surprised at his captain’s taking the blame. He relayed a moment from January 2015 after a 6-3 win over the Penguins to illustrate.
“He was credited for an assist and he comes to me the next day and says, ‘I didn’t touch that puck; that’s your assist. I’m going to get it changed to you,’ ” Hickey said. “He ends up losing the scoring title by one point, right? He doesn’t care about himself. It’s about the team, and it’s little things like that that stand out.
“The one word that sticks out to me is authentic . . . This is the person he is and the way he leads. He doesn’t try to be someone he’s not.”