UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- John Tavares grew up watching the Toronto Maple Leafs. As captain of the New York Islanders, he always seems to save a little extra when they're the other team on the ice.
That will be the case Tuesday when the Maple Leafs come to Nassau Coliseum for their first game of the season against the improved Islanders. New York won its first four games before a 3-1 road loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, a game that saw Tavares fail to get a point for the first time this season.
Though he's in his sixth NHL season, Tavares said that there's still something a little special about playing against the team he grew up rooting for.
"I don't get to eat lunch as quickly," he joked with the media horde that surrounded him after the morning skate. "Every game is a new challenge, every team. But obviously growing up there, what hockey means to the people, it's obviously a lot of fun playing against the Maple Leafs. At the same time I try not to change a whole lot or do a lot of things differently. I want to try to prepare the same way and focus on the things I need to do to contribute."
Tavares has eight goals and 19 points in 17 career games against the Maple Leafs.
He is tied with Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead with nine points. Tavares said one key to his fast start has been the Islanders' improved depth. No longer can an opponent focus solely on Tavares and linemates Kyle Okposo and Cory Conacher.
"A big factor is that every line can contribute," Tavares said. "Every line can score. Every line can be reliable in all three zones and that's hard to defend. We're able to skate and hound the puck and possess the puck. We're able to come at teams in waves and really be able to put the pressure on. And our back end does a great job getting pucks out of the zone. We're able to use our speed and our transition game and they're able to jump in offensively."
Toronto coach Randy Carlyle, whose team went 0-1-1 in a home-and-home series against the Detroit Red Wings last weekend, is very much aware of that depth. He knows that the Maple Leafs have to find a way to limit Tavares and his linemates without focusing on them so much that New York's remaining three lines get a lot of time and space.
"When you play against elite players you have to be very aware of what's going on," he said. "It's not just John Tavares; they've got a good line with Okposo and Conacher.
"You always recognize who's out there but it's a team game. We've got to beat the New York Islanders, not just John Tavares. We have a job to do and we can't just focus one player. They have more than one guy who can hurt you."
Islanders forward Nikolay Kulemin will be facing his old team for the first time. Kulemin spent his first six NHL seasons with Toronto; he signed with the Islanders as a free agent this summer.
"It's going to be a really interesting game playing against the guys that I played together with for a while," Kulemin said. "It's going to be a lot of fun. For sure I'll be giving my best against my old team."
Here are the projected lineups:
James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Joffrey Lupul - Nazem Kadri - Daniel Winnik
Leo Komarov - Mike Santorelli - David Clarkson
Richard Panik - Peter Holland - Carter Ashton
Dion Phaneuf - Cody Franson
Morgan Rielly - Roman Polak
Jake Gardiner - Stephane Robidas
Scratched: Matt Frattin, Stuart Percy
Injured: Brandon Kozun (ankle), David Booth (foot)
Cory Conacher - John Tavares - Kyle Okposo
Josh Bailey - Frans Nielsen - Ryan Strome
Nikolay Kulemin - Brock Nelson - Cal Clutterbuck
Matt Martin - Casey Cizikas - Colin McDonald
Nick Leddy - Johnny Boychuk
Thomas Hickey - Travis Hamonic
Calvin de Haan - Brian Strait
Scratched: Eric Boulton, Matt Donovan
Injured: Mikhail Grabovski (concussion), Michael Grabner (lower body), Lubomir Visnovsky (back), Matt Carkner (back)
Status report: Islanders coach Jack Capuano said Hamonic will be a game-time decision after he left practice Monday with an apparent upper-body injury, though he showed no ill-effects in the morning skate. If he can't play, Visnovsky could make his season debut. The 38-year-old has practiced freely for the past couple of days. ... Grabovski skated on his own before practice. ... Kozun, who was injured Friday, will miss at least four more weeks.
Who's hot: Bozak leads Toronto with three goals and six points. ... Santorelli had the Maple Leafs' only goal in the weekend sweep by Detroit. … Nelson leads the Islanders with four goals, and he's scored them on five shots on goal. Two of the goals have been deflections of shots by Boychuk. ... Tavares leads the NHL with seven assists.