The top pick in June's NHL Entry Draft earned his second preseason assist by setting up a power-play goal, but the New Jersey Devils spoiled his Nassau Coliseum debut by beating the New York Islanders 4-2 on Wednesday night.
After a quiet first two periods, Tavares' slick pass in close quarters set up Matt Moulson's power-play goal at 2:28 of the third, tying the game at 2-2. Olivier Magnan-Grenier put New Jersey ahead to stay when he poked a rebound past Martin Biron at 10:27, and Niklas Bergfors hit the empty net with 61 seconds left for the final margin.
Still, Tavares said, "I felt the most comfortable I've felt all preseason. I think I made some good things happen out there. I played real hard and my legs felt good, but I was disappointed in the way things ended up."
Moulson and Tavares, who grew up near each other and have practiced together often, have quickly developed good chemistry.
"Me and Matt know each other well," Tavares said. "He's got a good nose for the net, and right now, it's not a bad idea to feed him the puck."
Two of Moulson's four preseason goals have come off assists by Tavares.
"It's obvious he's a great player," said Moulson, who's trying to earn an NHL job and hasn't hurt himself by leading the team in goals. "You've got to let him do his thing out there – give him his room and get open."
Despite the loss, Isles coach Scott Gordon found some good things in his rookie center's performance.
"He made some nice plays," Gordon said. "His awareness of where he was on the ice and his decision-making was good."
The Devils, who hadn't played in a week, improved to 2-0-0, while the Islanders fell to 2-4-1. The teams meet again next Tuesday in Newark in their final preseason game.
Tavares was cheered by the announced crowd of 8,256 when he took the ice for the first time 26 seconds into the game. He promptly won an offensive-zone faceoff, but defenseman Mark Streit's shot was blocked by Travis Zajac.
"I tried to focus on just playing the game," he said of the fans who chanted his name during his first shift. "It was pretty awesome, but once the game got going, I just wanted to focus on what I had to do out there. But to get a reaction like that is pretty special."
The 19-year-old showed some inexperience near the six-minute mark when he took too long to get the puck out of the zone and was stripped by Brendan Shanahan – who played his first NHL game three years before Tavares was born. Shanahan got off a blast from the top of the right circle that forced Biron to come up with a sharp glove save.
Tavares got a scoring chance with a minute remaining in the period when he carried in over the blue line and stepped around one defender, but Johnny Oduya blocked his shot. He finished the scoreless first period with no shots on goal, one hit and four wins in five tries on faceoffs.
He had a good chance 90 seconds into the middle period, racing down right wing and cutting in on goal, but his shot trickled just wide of ex-Islander Yann Danis, who's vying for the backup job behind Martin Brodeur. Danis finished with 20 saves.
The Devils got on the board soon after, during the game's first power play. With Jeremy Reich in the box for hooking, Brian Rolston teed up a straightaway 50-foot slapper that hit Biron's pads. Vladimir Zharkov found the loose puck and pitch-forked it into the net at 4:11 for his first preseason goal and a 1-0 lead.
Tavares was credited with his first shot 20 seconds later when he cut through the middle and flicked the puck at Danis, who turned it aside.
Richard Park tied the game at 6:31. He was behind the net, took a pass from Greg Mauldin, came out to Danis' right and tucked a backhander between the goaltender's legs for his first goal of the preseason.
"You want to make things happen. Sometimes, things don't always go your way. I think more and more I'm getting chances out there, creating a lot more chances. I got a nice assist tonight. I'm trying to find my way around the net – get a few more opportunities and more shots on net." -- John Tavares
Through two periods, Tavares had a shot on goal, two hits and was 6-4 on faceoffs.
The Islanders finally got a power play early in the third period when Magnan-Grenier was called for tripping at 2:10. They needed only 18 seconds for Moulson to get his fourth goal of the preseason; Tavares' feed from inside the right circle put Moulson in alone, and he banged in his own rebound after Danis stopped his first shot.
"Always encouraging when you're playing well with a player like that," said Moulson, who has known Tavares for about seven years, since the Isles' rookie played with his younger brother. "Give him room and he'll find you."
Tavares, Moulson and linemate Trevor Smith generated a couple of good chances before Magnan-Grenier banged Cory Murphy's rebound behind Biron for the game-winner.
Despite the outcome, Tavares said things continue to get better.
"You want to make things happen," said Tavares, who finished with one shot on goal, two hits, a giveaway and a takeaway while going 8-5 on draws. "Sometimes, things don't always go your way. I think more and more I'm getting chances out there, creating a lot more chances. I got a nice assist tonight. I'm trying to find my way around the net – get a few more opportunities and more shots on net."