"I think great players find a way," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said after Tavares struck for two goals, including the game-winner in the third period, and two assists in a 5-2 win against the Hurricanes at the RBC Center.
Tavares made it look that simple in helping New York to its third win in three games against the Hurricanes this season. After Carolina scored two goals early in the third period to erase New York's 2-0 lead, Tavares needed just 41 seconds to get the go-ahead goal by firing home a pass from Matt Moulson. who finished with three points. Tavares assisted on Kyle Okposo's empty-netter and added one of his own to complete a four-point night.
Any way you look at it, the Islander All-Star is hot. He has 11 goals and 26 points in his last 15 games -- including four goals and five assists in three January games against Carolina. When it comes to why he consistently ruins Carolina's night, he doesn't have an answer.
"I try to approach each game with the same work ethic and attitude," the third-year center said. "You get to know the teams you're playing against and what you expect your matchups to be, but I just try and go off my hard work and create my space that way. And my linemates have been phenomenal too."
The Islanders came out strong against Carolina, striking for a power-play goal at 5:59 of the first period.
Tavares' pass from the left-wing boards found PA Parenteau alone in the slot, and he sent a wrister over Cam Ward's glove. Carolina defenseman Jay Harrison was serving a delay of game penalty.
But the Islanders needed to lean on goaltender Kevin Poulin, called up from Bridgeport for the starting assignment, to escape the opening period with the lead -- he went left to right across the crease to rob Eric Staal in the final minute. Poulin was making his third start of the season, but Tuesday night's game marked the first time he got the call while both Evgeni Nabokov and Al Montoya were healthy — not that the often-crowded New York goaltending picture bothered him.
"The last couple years there have been three goalies here," said Poulin, who appeared in 10 games for the Isles last season. "When you get the call up, you just have to be ready. I just focus on the game and my team."
New York's defense smothered the Hurricanes in the second period, limiting Carolina to five shots on goal and extending its lead to 2-0 on Moulson's power-play goal, but the lead quickly evaporated in the third period.
Brandon Sutter stickhandled through the slot and sent a backhander past a screened Poulin at 3:15, cutting the lead to 2-1. At 6:55, Tim Brent tied it when he banked the puck off New York's Matt Martin from behind the net during a power play with Poulin down outside the crease.
But Tavares wasted no time putting the Isles back on top. Moulson raced behind the net and threw the puck into the slot after Cam Ward couldn't handle Steve Staios' dump-in. Tavares roared into the slot and hammered the puck into a wide-open net at 7:36 to give the Islanders a 3-2 lead.
Moulson, now with 46 points in 49 games, has been Tavares' left wing since the Islanders made Tavares the top pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.
"We know each other really well," Moulson said. "I like playing with him. Hopefully he likes playing with me too. We've developed some real good chemistry with Kyle (Okposo). Johnny's been playing some great hockey this year obviously. We're making sure we get pucks to the net, and it leads to some goals."
Carolina is having no such luck when it comes to finding the net. The Hurricanes have 10 goals in their last six games.
"Tonight is a good indication that if we don't play 60 minutes and we don't win our battles we're no different than any other team, we're not going to win," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "We need everybody. We can't have any passengers, and that's what it's going to take every game – no matter who we're playing against."
When the opponent is Tavares, the job gets even tougher. He set up Okposo for the tying goal in New York's 4-3 shootout win at the RBC Center four weeks ago, then scored both goals -- including the overtime winner -- in the Isles' 2-1 win on Long Island just 10 days earlier.
"He's done a good job of hurting us these last three games, but he seems to be doing it against everybody," Muller said of Tavares, who now has 53 points, good for third in the League pending Tuesday night's NHL outcomes. "He's an opportunist and when he gets them he makes the most of them. He's one of those elite players who is on fire right now."
1 - 0 NYI
2 - 0 NYI
2 - 1 NYI
2 - 2 Tie
3 - 2 NYI
4 - 2 NYI
5 - 2 NYI
Delaying Game - Puck over glass