Islanders fans are waiting -- unlikely patiently, but waiting nonetheless -- for John Tavares to do something amazing. Because, you know, he always does.
At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, the Islanders center certainly isn't the biggest man on the ice. He's not the fastest skater and he doesn't have the hardest shot. But make no mistake: He is the best. Watch and he'll show you, time and again. Especially when it counts.
So while it may seem that the Tampa Bay Lightning and big defenseman Victor Hedman have Tavares' number, Islanders fans know it's just a matter of time.
Thus far in three trips to the postseason, Tavares has 11 career playoff goals, nine of which have either tied the score or given the Islanders a lead. His most notable, recent heroics came in Game 6 of the first round against the Florida Panthers, when he tied the game with 52 seconds left in regulation, then scored the double-overtime winner to give him five goals and four assists in six games.
(For perspective: The only other player in NHL history to score a last-minute, game-tying goal and an overtime goal in a series-clinching win was Boston's Patrice Bergeron against Toronto in 2013.) Tavares was a factor in nine of the Islanders' 15 goals in the series. That last goal, though, was the exclamation point, the illustration of just how good Tavares really is.
Tavares loosed a heavy wrist shot from just above the faceoff dot, and Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo made a pretty pad save. Still driving the net, Tavares picked up his own rebound, curled behind the goal and scored on a lunging, backhanded wraparound, sending the Islanders into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993.
When Tavares performs like that, it's hard to ignore his talent. But on an every-day basis, he can be a downright ordinary superstar. While Patrick Kane dazzles with his puckhandling, Alexander Ovechkin overwhelms with his power and Sidney Crosby impresses with his skating ability, Tavares' skill is subtler.
"There isn't one thing that makes you stand up and say, 'Wow, he's the best player out there,'" says former-Islander-turned-TSN-analyst Ray Ferraro, who was between the benches calling Game 6. "It's more the sum of the parts that make him the player he is."
And the key parts of that equation are Tavares' hands, head and work ethic.
The hands, he likely inherited from his uncle, legendary Canadian lacrosse player John Tavares. The younger John played lacrosse his whole life, too, and the puck often seems to adhere to his blade as if it were nestled in the webbing of a lacrosse stick. "His hands are just different," Ferraro says. "Silky. The puck comes to him and it sticks on his stick, it doesn't bounce away. He doesn't ever have to regroup."
And around the opposing net, Tavares uses those hands to deadly effect. He's been known to pick rebounds out of the air, juggle them on the end of his stick, then slap them home. (See this goal from the 2009 World Juniors.) But more often than not, Tavares makes the right moves to create space and give himself a clear shot, making many of the goals he scores look simple; a loose puck hammered into an empty net. But the beauty is in Tavares' ability to anticipate. He is never anywhere by accident.
"Tavares is just so intelligent," says longtime scout and former Flames general manager Craig Button, now an analyst with TSN. "He is always watching, sizing things up, whether it's in practice, on video or on the bench. He's always looking to see how he can take advantage. He's looking for a solution to every challenge that comes his way. If they do this to me, how do I counteract? How do I take advantage of what is happening around me?"
Tavares takes advantage with a lot of hard work.
"There are superstars in this league who are just so dynamic offensively that they don't have to work as hard as he does, but he works for everything he gets," says Islanders wing Kyle Okposo, Tavares' linemate. "Whether it's winning a big faceoff or being really strong on his stick or making a great play defensively, he does it all. The way that he prepares to compete is second to none."
In the Islanders' final regular-season game against the Lightning on April 4, Tavares had a goal and two assists. Hedman, tasked with containing Tavares, was a minus-3.
Now, though, the tables have turned as the Islanders trail in the series 2-1 heading into Game 4 on Friday. After logging a goal and an assist in Game 1 in Tampa last Wednesday, Tavares has had zero points in the last two games. In Game 3 on Tuesday night, Hedman was a plus-2, Tavares a minus-2.
Hockey folks have been waiting for this matchup since 2009. In that year's NHL draft, the Islanders took Tavares with the No. 1 overall pick. Hedman went second, to the Lightning. But both were so dominant at their respective positions that Tampa certainly didn't feel as if it'd finished second. "It was a no-lose situation," said then-Lightning GM Brian Lawton, now an NHL Network analyst."
This time, one of the teams has to lose. And who prevails will depend an awful lot on whether it is Hedman or Tavares who comes out on top.
It's a difficult matchup for Islanders coach Jack Capuano. Take Game 3 as an example. Hedman saw 30:15 of ice time. Even with the last change, it's difficult to maneuver your star center away from a guy who is on the ice more than 50 percent of the time. The Islanders also took 10 minutes of penalties. Tavares does not play on the penalty kill.
And Hedman, nimble and swift for a man who is 6-foot-6, has done a fantastic job of using his speed and his stick to keep Tavares close. He's in position before Tavares gets moving, and minding his angles so Tavares can't outmaneuver him with his body positioning and his strength.
"You have to mark Tavares before he has a chance to get going," Button says. "Tavares exploits every opportunity and is really attuned to what is unfolding in front of him. You have to engage him long before he's become attuned. Once he has a chance to size up the situation, it's too late."
So the Islanders fans wait, and hope the two days between Games 3 and 4 have given the ever-studious Tavares enough time to revamp his plan.