Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, the first pick of the 2008 Entry Draft who tied for the League lead with 51 goals last season, and New York Islanders center John Tavares are set to go head-to-head in the first of four meetings in 2010-11. Tavares, the No. 1 pick from the 2009 Draft, led the Isles with 54 points last season.
And in a refreshing change from last season, both teams are off to solid starts. The Lightning, behind Stamkos' team-leading 5 goals and 9 points, have won four of their first five games and are tied for first place with Washington in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay won a total of four games in regulation in October in 2009-10 en route to missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third straight season.
The Islanders, who ended Toronto's four-game winning streak Monday when Tavares -- in front of family and friends -- scored an overtime power-play goal at the Air Canada Centre, also find themselves tied for first place, with Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division at 3-1-2. New York got off to an 0-3-3 start last season and also failed to qualify for the playoffs for the third straight season.
Tavares and Stamkos (Getty Images)
Both teams experienced changes in the offseason. Under new ownership, Tampa Bay hired Steve Yzerman to be the club's new general manager. Yzerman then hired coach Guy Boucher, who had just one season of experience at the pro level, with AHL Hamilton last season.
"I'm all about work ethic," Boucher said after the Lightning ended the Dallas Stars' four-game winning streak Monday. "The message is very clear. I want guys who are relentless -- and that is what these guys are."
The Islanders, meanwhile, spent their offseason revamping a defense that was lacking toughness and experience. Mark Eaton and Milan Jurcina were signed as free agents, while James Wisniewski was acquired via trade from Anaheim. Those moves have paid immediate dividends.
"It just shows we're playing well," Wisniewski told NHL.com on Wednesday after the team skated at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. "Special teams came up big for us (Monday). We had a power-play goal in overtime and held them to zero goals until the last 2 1/2 minutes. They were flying high and playing at home, and we went in there and got two points. That's what we were looking for."
The Islanders will be looking to contain Stamkos on Thursday as he attempts to continue his hot start. Gordon said the game plan doesn't change, but the biggest thing for New York will be to keep the referees' whistles in their pockets.
"He's just like (Alex) Ovechkin, (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin," Gordon said of Stamkos. "Those guys are going to get their chances every game. All you can do is really try to keep them to the outside and make sure you're doing all the right things offensively so they're not getting their opportunities offensively. Make them play defense. Staying out of the (penalty) box is huge."
Added Wisniewski: "You've just got to make sure you keep him in front of you. You can't lose your eye on him. If he's in the soft spots, he's going to score goals. You just have to have a tight check on him and make sure you finish every check on him. You just try to contain him."
Tavares has gotten to know Stamkos over the last few years, and the two were teammates for Canada at the World Championships last spring. Tavares admitted the enjoyment he gets from going head-to-head against another bright, young star in the League.
"Mostly, I just try to prepare myself as best I can," Tavares said. "Every game, I try to play at the highest level that I can. Obviously, you're playing against the best players in the world and he's certainly put himself in that category. Personally, I just try and focus on helping my team and what I have to do to be successful. But it's always exciting to play against a great competitor and a good friend away from the rink, too."
But what is it about Stamkos that makes him so dangerous?
"I think he's probably got the best one-timer in the game right now," Tavares told NHL.com. "I think he's lethal on the power play. Even his wrist shot, his snap shot … his release is so good and he gets pucks off so quick. He's such a good skater that he has a lot of time and a lot of space to make plays and do what he does best."
There certainly will be plenty of action drops in Tampa Bay on Thursday as the fans will be treated to two of the game's top young guns. While it won't be fun for Wisniewski and his teammates trying to prevent Stamkos from lighting the lamp, he understands the excitement the game will provide.
"This is kind of what they've been looking for the past 10 years … all these No. 1 draft picks are becoming superstars," Wisniewski said. "It's exciting for people to see, like Ovechkin, Crosby, Johnny, Stamkos, (Patrick) Kane … it's pretty fun."
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