It ended the only way it should have, or maybe the only way it could have. John Tavares, drafted to carry a franchise back to greatness, coming through the way superstars do.
That was the expectation placed upon his shoulders when Tavares was taken first overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. In truth, he’s been steadily delivering even before he scored both Islanders goals in Sunday night’s series-clinching, 2-1 double-overtime win against the Florida Panthers at Barclays Center.
Tavares led the Islanders back into the playoffs in his fourth season, and the only time they’ve missed out since was after he was injured at the 2014 Winter Olympics. He’s been a two-time Hart Trophy finalist and a first-team NHL All-Star.
And against the Florida Panthers, he gave Islanders fans a reason to celebrate postseason hockey that they’d been waiting 23 years for.
“We haven’t been by the first round in a while,” said head coach Jack Capuano. “It’s about the leadership of your team and it’s about the captain and it starts with him. That’s the main reason we’re moving on.”
Tavares’ impact on the series was felt long before his clinching heroics. He finished with nine points on five goals and four assists in the six-game series.
“I called Johnny the best player in the league earlier in the series and he comes up pretty clutch there for us,” said defenseman Travis Hamonic. “It’s as good a performance as I’ve seen anybody give.”
When the Islanders needed it most, Tavares made Hamonic look very astute.
They were a minute away from heading back to Florida for Game 7 and skating 6-on-5 with goaltender Thomas Greiss pulled from the ice. Nick Leddy and Nikolay Kulemin targeted Florida goalie Roberto Luongo twice from in close and were denied.
But the back-to-back saves left Luongo sprawled on his stomach while the puck slid away from him, sitting on the doorstop for Tavares to punch in with just 53.2 seconds left.
Midway through the second overtime, Tavares came through again to clinch the series. His shot on goal caromed off Luongo’s chest. Tavares controlled the rebound, swept behind the net and stuck in the wrap-around goal for the win.
“I got the rebound and I realized Luongo slid up pretty hard so I knew it was gonna be tough for him to get back,” said Tavares. “I just didn’t know if they had anyone going to that back post and I just tried to make sure I kept the puck settled down.”
It was a moment Islanders fans had been waiting so long for, delivered by the player they were counting on to make it happen. Tavares knows the history, and wants this to be just the first step.
“Given the opportunity I was given, give me the trust and let me become the player that I want to be and I want to achieve something special here,” said Tavares. “I want to be a part of bringing the Islanders back to what they once were.”