On April 24, the New York Islanders were on the brink of going to the brink.
Down 1-0 to the Florida Panthers in Game 6, the Islanders were under a minute away from a three-hour flight back to Sunrise for an anything-can-happen Game 7. Tension gripped Barclays Center as a chance to advance to the second round for the first time in 23 years was potentially about to slip away, at least temporarily.
In that moment, the Islanders had their best player on the ice because if anyone was going to do something special, it would be John Tavares. Nick Leddy – who played a crucial role in the game-tying goal, blocking the would-be dagger in front of the empty Islanders net and rushing the puck up the ice – put the puck on net, but it was Tavares who’d put it home, sending the game to overtime.
If getting the Islanders to overtime was a big moment, then what happened later was the type of play that’s career-defining. In double-overtime, Tavares stepped up again, putting a shot off Roberto Luongo, chasing down his own rebound, curling around the net and tucking a backhand home.
Tavares put the Islanders on his back in Game 6, because that’s what leaders do in big moments.
“[There’s] not much else you can say about a guy rising to the occasion,” Cal Clutterbuck said. “Ultimately that’s what leadership is about. When you really need it, you have the trust that they’re going to be there and [Johnny’s] always there.”
That game was merely the exclamation point on a spectacular series for Tavares, who finished with nine points (5G, 4A). If the NHL hadn’t heard the noise 91 was making already, he announced his presence through a megaphone that night. The only thing is, he announced it with his play. Off the ice, Tavares is about as reserved as they come. The Islanders’ leader is a quiet one. That doesn’t bother Clutterbuck, though, whose definition of leadership is less about talking and more about producing.
“When push comes to shove, the thing about leaders is you want to rely on them when you need them the most,” Clutterbuck said. “Everybody in this room has the confidence that when push came to shove, you can rely on Johnny to be there for you.”
For that reason, plus all of his community work off of the ice, Tavares was named one of three finalists for the NHL’s Mark Messier Leadership Award on Wednesday.
“It’s pretty special, pretty significant,” Tavares said. “I really didn’t expect it. I think it just goes to show the amount of support and how good this group is together. Without guys like Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Clutterbuck, really the list goes on and on, Josh Bailey, Johnny Boychuk, their support and how much they mean to this team. Their ability to always be there when I need them or anybody needs the leadership that we have in here, goes a long way and so much credit goes to those guys.”
Tavares, who has volunteered assists away from himself in the past, values team stats – back-to-back 100-point seasons for the Islanders – over his own. He’s an honest player and his honest effort set the tone for the Islanders. So while he tries to deflect the attention from himself, head coach Jack Capuano makes a point of emphasizing Tavares’ accomplishments.
“I don’t think there is one player that means more to his team than 91 means to the Islanders,” Capuano said. “It’s an honor for him, he’s a great leader, he’s been a great leader for us and it’s been a joy just watching him mature, year-in and year-out.”
Clutterbuck’s time with Tavares predates any of the Islanders, as the two were teammates with the Oshawa Generals. The 28-year-old nearly has three years on Tavares and even used to drop him off at school in Oshawa, but gladly follows his younger captain into the nightly battle. If anything, having Tavares there, leading the charge, is reassuring.
“He’ll make sure everybody around him feels comfortable with the way things are going,” Clutterbuck said. “He’s a good leader in the unique sense that he’ll make a play that will get the whole bench go ‘Johnny’s got it, we’re alright.’”