UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- John Tavares has been in Europe during May for each of the past three years. He's delighted to be able to stay home this spring.
In each of the three previous years, May has meant Tavares was playing for Canada at the IIHF World Championship after his New York Islanders missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Now he and the Islanders are in the postseason for the first time since 2007, preparing for a win-or-go-home Game 6 Saturday against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Nassau Coliseum (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).
It's Tavares' first trip to the playoffs since turning pro after the Islanders selected him with the first pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, and he's not in any hurry to have them end.
"To enjoy the playoffs is to play in them," he said after his team's morning skate Saturday. "It's been a good thing, the first 10, 11 days, and obviously we want to extend it."
The 22-year-old center finished third in the NHL during the regular season with 28 goals and helped the Islanders rally in the final weeks of the season to make the playoffs after five consecutive seasons of finishing among the League's bottom five teams. Though his team had to scrap for every point down the stretch, Tavares said he's noticed that the intensity of the playoffs is ratcheted up even from the key games his team played in April.
"It's significant, even more significant than you think," he said of the difference between the regular season and the postseason. "We were in kind of a do-or-die situation for the last month of the [regular] season, playing a lot of important games and having to get some momentum. Even though we were playing hard and playing playoff-type of hockey, there's nothing quite like [the playoffs], once you get into it -- the focus, the intensity, the passion from the fans, what playing for the Cup means to everybody. It's definitely jumped up a few levels."
The Islanders' return to the playoffs has brought more individual attention to Tavares, who was honored Friday by being named one of the three finalists for the Hart Trophy, given to the NHL's most valuable player. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals are the other finalists.
"It's a special honor," Tavares said. "It's one of the highest honors individually that you can get. To be nominated with those two other guys who are such great players and have proven themselves over the years and with what they mean to our game and their teams – it's special.
"There are a lot of people who've gotten me here ever since I first put on a pair of skates when I was 3 years old. A lot of people deserve a lot of credit for helping me, especially this season, with my teammates and the coaching staff and how well our team did. You can't forget those guys, how they contributed to my success. I wouldn't be here without them."
If Tavares is grateful to his teammates, they are delighted to see him honored.
"It's a huge achievement for him, and all his teammates are really proud of him," Islanders captain Mark Streit told NHL.com. "He's a very gifted player, very talented. But it's all about hard work and dedication in his life. He's a great example for the younger guys in the room. It's great to see."
Streit has been with the Islanders throughout Tavares' NHL career, and the two played for the same team in Switzerland during the work stoppage earlier this season. The 35-year-old defenseman said what impresses him most about Tavares is his desire to improve.
"He always had the skill. He always knew how to score goals," Streit said. "But his dedication to hockey is really high. You only see that in a few guys. I've never seen that in a young kid, to that point. He works so hard every summer, he works really hard during the winter.
"He's getting better every year, and I am 100-percent sure that he's going to get better next year, the year after. He’s only  years old -- he's so young. He's only going to keep getting better and help this team get better. It's great to see."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano said he has no doubts about Tavares' importance to the franchise.
"I know I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you guys if it weren't for the performance of John Tavares and the way that he's played for us," he said. "He's a big reason why we are here today. He's a guy who loves challenges. He's a leader on and off the ice. It's a well-deserved honor for a guy who works that hard."
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