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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

Tavares aiming to stay on upward climb

Sunday, 09.25.2011 / 3:00 AM / NHL.com's 30 in 15

By Brian Compton - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

John Tavares celebrated his 21st birthday Sept. 20. While most hockey players that age still are fighting their way up the professional ladder, Tavares will be preparing for his third NHL season with the New York Islanders.

"Ricky (DiPietro) is calling me a veteran and I'm just turning 21," Tavares told NHL.com. "It's hard to believe, but I'm excited for it. Every year I want to keep improving and keep getting better and I'm trying to become one of the elite players in the League and help our team get back to where we should be and where we could be. It's a new responsibility trying to take my game to another level."

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Tavares has been through a lot in his first two professional seasons. In 2009-10, he carried the burden of being that year's No. 1 draft pick. He immediately became the Isles' No. 1 center and had 24 goals and 30 assists for a club that finished 13th in the Eastern Conference.

Last season was loaded with ups and downs. While Tavares saw his numbers improve -- he had 29 goals and led the club with 67 points -- the Islanders struggled so badly in November that Scott Gordon was removed as coach after 10 straight losses and replaced by Jack Capuano. New York improved dramatically in the second half of the season, which has Tavares excited for the fall.

"I remember that game in L.A. (a 5-1 loss Nov. 13), and it was Coach Gordon's last game," Tavares said. "It just felt like we were really lost as a group. You put so much hard work into things and it's not paying off and you're like, 'Where are things going?' There are so many questions and you don't know how to correct them and you're trying to find answers immediately. It was tough and definitely a low point in a lot of ways. But at the same time, I think it might have been the best thing for us. Maybe losing five or six in a row would have been great and we would have learned our lesson. But I think we really started to learn how to handle adversity and we started coming really close as a group. I think we showed that the second half of the year.

"We really didn't back down from anybody, either. We started to show we weren't going to be a pushover and we weren't going to be an easy team to play against. We started to develop a bit of an identity from that. We weren't going to take any crap anymore or any abuse or any disrespect that we felt. We made sure we came out to play every night and we knew we had a talented group. Things started to change and the confidence came back. The closeness that we had made a big difference."

Tavares told NHL.com he was excited when Islanders general manager Garth Snow announced he was removing the interim tag for Capuano, who received a contract extension just days after the 2010-11 regular season concluded. Like many of his teammates, Tavares gave Capuano a full endorsement when he talked to Snow about the coaching situation.

"I think Garth asked all the guys," Tavares said. "Me and Jack's relationship is great. I can go to him about the game and ask him, and he's done a lot of video with me and helped me improve my game. We've got great assistant coaches, too, in Dean Chynoweth and Scotty Allen. It's a really good mix now. They've been great with us."

Tavares showed his belief in the Islanders' plan when he signed a six-year contract extension with the club Sept. 15. Tavares could have become a restricted free agent July 1, 2012.

"I believe in this organization and this hockey team," he said. "The Stanley Cup is what we want, obviously sooner than later. But we've got to take it one day at a time. It's for us as a team to take the next step and make the playoffs."

While the Islanders still are trying to find a way to get a new arena to replace the soon-to-be-40-year old Nassau Coliseum, the future of the franchise is extremely bright. The club added another big piece to its young core at the 2011 Entry Draft when center Ryan Strome was selected with the fifth pick. Strome and Tavares are close friends and worked out together this summer.

"Just his work ethic and how professional he is … he's very competitive," Strome said of Tavares. "Just to be around that type of atmosphere with him and just learn off that, it's quite the thing to be around."

"Every year I want to keep improving and keep getting better and I'm trying to become one of the elite players in the League and help our team get back to where we should be and where we could be. It's a new responsibility trying to take my game to another level."
-- John Tavares

"I was thrilled," Tavares said of Strome's selection. "All my best friends, we all work out together and we knew there was a great possibility and seeing him (get drafted by the Islanders), it was a great day. You could see how excited he was and how relieved he was. I think he was really happy to come to Long Island. He understands where we're headed and the opportunity we have here and he has. He's going to be a great player. I speak very highly because I know him and I've skated with him a little bit and see what he's been able to do at his age. He can be an elite passer in this game and really make players around him better. We're looking forward to him doing that, whether it's this season or shortly down the road."

Tavares should know, considering he's already an elite passer who's made players around him better. Matt Moulson is a two-time 30-goal scorer skating alongside Tavares, while PA Parenteau had 20 goals and 33 assists as his right wing. It was Parenteau's first full NHL season.

"He wants to be in a position to take the team on his back," Capuano said of Tavares. "We've got some pretty good players around him coming into this season. I expect John to have another great year. His goals and his objectives are to get this team into the postseason, and hopefully we can do that."

Added Tavares: "It's about putting it together for all 82 (games). The best teams are the teams that find their way into the playoffs. They're always able to put losing streaks and tough losses behind them and they move forward. It's a new day. For us, it's finding that consistency. Being healthy, that will allow us to do that more. We want to be playing with stuff on the line. That's what we're striving towards."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

It's hard to walk into that locker room and look those guys in the eye when they've played -- clearly, that was our best game we've played in the series -- and I thought we deserved a better fate tonight.

— Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper on his team's 3-2 loss to the Canadiens in Game 3 on Sunday