Game One was all about number 91.
John Tavares put the Islanders on his back with the first three-point game of his playoff career, leading the Islanders to a 5-4 win over the Florida Panthers on Thursday night at BB&T Center. His fingerprints were all over the game, scoring a crucial goal while setting up two others, as the Islanders took a 1-0 series lead.
“He’s a hound,” Kyle Okposo told Pierre McGuire after Thursday’s win. “He works so hard. Nobody puts in more effort than John Tavares into his game and it really shows. On nights like tonight, he took the game over.”
Tavares was tenacious on Thursday, playing the series opener like his life depended on it. He forechecked hard, picking Brian Campbell’s pocket down low to set up Okposo for the game-winner at 2:33 of the third period. He also set up Frans Nielsen in the first period, turning defenseman Alex Petrovic inside out before backhanding a pass to his linemate. Okposo and Nielsen each finished with two points, as the top line combined for seven points (3G, 4A).
“You have to lead by example,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “You saw him chipping pucks, not trying to get too creative, as creative as he is. That’s contagious. He got pucks deep and I thought that line was real good.”
Between setting up Nielsen and Okposo, Tavares scored arguably the most important goal of the game, tying the game 3-3 with 21.8 seconds to play in the second period, vaulting the Islanders into the third period with momentum.
What made all of this even more impressive? Tavares was nearly knocked out of the game in the second period.
Islanders’ fans held their breath in the middle frame, as Nick Leddy’s shot caught Tavares in the back of the ankle, causing their leading scorer to drop to the ice in pain and skate gingerly to the bench. Tavares immediately went down the tunnel, but just to walk it off. He told MSG’s Shannon Hogan in the second intermission he was just glad the shot wasn’t a booming slapper.
“It stings right away, but it’s part of it, going to the net and battling,” Tavares said. “It’s a puck off the foot. You just try to work it off, those first couple of minutes it stings, but it’s not a protected area.”
Still, seeing the captain fight through the pain and then have such an impact on the game had to have been a lift for the Islanders. Capuano’s right, seeing that kind of heart from your best player is contagious. A leader like that is easy to follow.
“He was excellent for us tonight,” Okposo. “He wears the C for a reason. He showed it tonight.”