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Tavares, Islanders take a step in the right direction

by Travis Betts / New York Islanders
All three of John Tavares' shootout goals in 2013 clinched a win for the Islanders (CLICK TO WATCH)

The focal point of the Islanders rebuild is making fans forget the term entirely.

Following Game 5 of their first playoff series in six years, John Tavares was nominated as one of three finalists for the 2013 Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the player “adjudged to be the most valuable to his team.”

Head Coach Jack Capuano said the nomination was well-deserved.

“I always look at what that player does for your team,” Capuano said. “Let’s face it. If John Tavares didn’t have the season that he had, we’re probably not in the situation that we’re in. He did a lot for our team and he’s going to get some consideration. There’s no doubt that he should be in that category.”

Tavares, the franchise’s most recognizable face, ranked third in the league with 28 goals and was just under a point-per-game with 47 in 48 contests.

He led the Islanders in scoring for the fourth straight season, but the biggest difference this year has been the timeliness of his production. Including playoffs, 14 of Tavares’ 30 goals came during the third period, and 13 of his goals either tied the game or gave the Islanders the lead; five were game-winners. Tavares scored three times in the shootout this year; all three were clinchers. It’s those big goals that propelled the Islanders to an 11-2-4 record over the final 17 games and led them to the postseason for the first time since 2007.

“I don’t know if there’s anyone else you would want with the game on their stick in the entire league,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “He does some tremendous, amazing things with the puck. As a defenseman, I go against the best players in the league every night, and I watch John do things with the puck and watch defensemen try to play against him and I’m just happy that I’m not stuck on the receiving end of it because guys don’t know how to play him.”

Tavares was named an alternate captain at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, just after his 21st birthday. Blessed with enough natural hockey skill to stand out among any group, Tavares’ game has reached that upper echelon because of his work ethic. He takes every shot or pass during practice like the game is on the line, and he spends his offseasons getting stronger at The Athlete Training Centre in Toronto, a gym affectionately referred to as “The Dungeon” by its members.

“He just works so hard to get better at each area of his game and that’s what makes him such a special player in this league,” Moulson said. “He was obviously our best player all season and he works extremely hard to be the best on and off the ice. Whatever he does - he wants to be the best at it. He wants to win. I think people can see that. It’s nice to see him get some recognition.”

Much of Tavares’ consideration for the prestigious award stems from the team ending a six-year postseason drought. Having a player selected as the league’s “most valuable” usually means the team as a whole has enjoyed some success; the only player since 1959 on a non-playoff team to win the Hart was Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux in 1988.

“I think people are recognizing the way we’ve played to get into the playoffs this year, where we came from and where we’re headed,” Tavares said. “Obviously we’re in this battle right now, but it’s not just one man, one line, or five or six guys pulling their weight. We had contributions from everybody down the stretch to get ourselves in the playoffs and now be in this position. Everybody has contributed in a big way.”

There’s been times this year where he’s basically thrown us on his back and willed us to win some games. He’s always been a great talent and a great player and it’s been fun watching him take that next step.Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic

The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2009, Tavares has been the crown jewel of a stable of recent draft selections the Islanders have developed into NHL talent. Nine homegrown Islanders draft picks skated in at least 20 regular season games this season, the oldest among that group being 28-year-old center Frans Nielsen.

Farther down the pipeline, seven of the top-10 leading scorers for the Islanders American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport are players the Islanders drafted within the last five years. The pieces continue falling into place for the Islanders franchise, as it grows closer to the goal of perennially competing for the Stanley Cup.

While the Hart Trophy is awarded for regular season accomplishments, Tavares has stepped up in his first postseason appearance as well. In Game 2, his primary assist on Moulson’s first period goal cut into a two-goal deficit, as the Islanders eventually won the game. He lit the lamp in the third period of Game 3 to force overtime, and scored the game-winner in the final period of Game 4, earning First Star honors.

“There’s been times this year where he’s basically thrown us on his back and willed us to win some games,” Hamonic said. “He’s always been a great talent and a great player and it’s been fun watching him take that next step.”

The two other finalists, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, were also No. 1 overall picks (Crosby in 2005, Ovechkin in 2004). Crosby won the award in 2007, after helping the Penguins end a four-year playoff drought. Ovechkin took home the award in 2008 and 2009, the timing coinciding with the Capitals first postseason trip in four years. Neither Pittsburgh nor Washington has missed the postseason in the years since.

It’s easy to see the similarities between Crosby and Tavares. Both play center and carried the lion’s share of the responsibility when it came to turning around once proud franchises that had fallen upon lean times. Crosby captained the Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 2008 and 2009, hoisting hockey’s most coveted trophy the second time around.

The 25-year-old Crosby said he can relate to what Tavares has seen in his four seasons in the NHL.

“He’s done a lot in New York,” Crosby said. “He came into the league with a lot of pressure and I can relate to what that feels like - coming in with expectations and knowing there’s pressure and coming on to a young team. There are similarities there, but he’s his own player. He’s done a great job of handling that pressure and ultimately getting better every year. He’s a big reason why his team is at the point they are now. He had a great season and led the way for them. He’s definitely gotten better and better each year.”

Two years after Crosby won the Hart, he hoisted the Stanley Cup. While Tavares’ nomination is no guarantee he’ll go home with MVP honors, it serves as yet another indication of the direction the Islanders franchise is headed.

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