TORONTO -- He's just 22 years old, but John Tavares has already mastered the ability to contain his inner excitement and share the credit.
As Tavares met with the media following the New York Islanders' convincing 5-3 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre, the Oakville, Ontario, native could have been excused for doing a little celebration dance. Instead, he made sure the focus was not on him, but rather on the entire group that continues to march toward the playoffs.
In truth, there was no denying Tavares was the best player on the ice and that the Maple Leafs simply could not contain him. He led the way for the Islanders with two goals and an assist; his right wing, Brad Boyes, had one goal and two assists, while left wing Matt Moulson had a goal and one assist.
Frans Nielsen also scored a third-period goal for the Islanders. Joffrey Lupul and Cody Franson gave Toronto a quick 2-0 lead, but the Maple Leafs didn't score again until Dion Phaneuf's last-minute power-play goal.
"I was able to capitalize on some opportunities," Tavares said. "But we all played well after a bit of a tough start. It's good to bounce back and it's nice to contribute, but now we move on to our next game Saturday [in Winnipeg]."
Indeed it was a rough start. The Maple Leafs killed off an early 5-on-3 Islanders advantage for 1:26 early in the first period, then grabbed a quick 2-0 lead by scoring on their first two shots. Lupul made it 1-0 at 5:05 when he got the puck at the Toronto blue line, raced down the left-wing boards and went around Islanders defenseman Matt Carkner before driving to the net and slipping a shot past Evgeni Nabokov. Two minutes later Toronto defender Franson slipped in from the right point and was spied by center Tyler Bozak who made a perfect pass for the one-timer and a power-play goal.
Things then turned nasty as Toronto's Frazer McLaren and New York's Carkner fought, followed by Colton Orr of the Maple Leafs and Eric Boulton of the Islanders four seconds later.
"I really thought those two fights got us going," Tavares said. "[Carkner and Boulton] made big sacrifices for us and really woke us up and got us going. I think we believed in ourselves going into the game and to start the way we did was disappointing, but we recovered and those two guys fighting really got us going. It changed the momentum of the game for us."
The victory gives the Islanders 51 points; they are seventh in the Eastern Conference and moved within striking distance of the fifth-place Maple Leafs, who have 53 points -- one more than the Ottawa Senators. Toronto visits Ottawa on Saturday, while the Islanders continue their season-ending five-game trip in Winnipeg against the ninth-place Jets, who trail New York by three points.
As has been the case of late, the Maple Leafs struggled to get pucks on net. They were outshot 32-13 in Monday's 2-0 victory against the New Jersey Devils and 37-30 the next night in a 5-1 road loss to the Washington Capitals.
Against the Islanders the Maple Leafs were outshot 38-21 -- including 19-5 in the first period and 15-5 in the second. A win by Toronto over New York coupled with a loss by the Winnipeg Jets would have put the Maple Leafs into the playoffs for the first time since 2003-04. Now it's back to the drawing board.
"We're going to fix this," Lupul said. "We're going to watch a lot of video (Friday) and we'll get back to basics and fix it."
Toronto coach Randy Carlyle agreed that it is time for his players to go back to school. The Maple Leafs lost four in a row and seven of nine in March, but were able to find their game -- and Carlyle said they must do it again.
"We said when we started this process in January that we weren't going to stray away from the template that we created," Carlyle said. "We have to revisit it and that's what we'll do. We'll provide some video and some things to show them [what's going wrong] because they're obviously not seeing the same things we're seeing. It seems at times we're trying to do too much as individuals and it's costing us."
Among the most pressing concerns for the Maple Leafs is their lack of scoring punch from their centres. Bozak has been fine, but Nazem Kadri, who led the team in scoring for much of the season, has just two assists in his past eight games -- and Mikhail Grabovski, who has struggled most of the season, has one goal and three points in 12 games.
Boyes, Moulson and Tavares all scored in the first period after the Islanders fell behind 2-0. Tavares connected late in the second, and Nielsen removed any doubt about the outcome with a blast past James Reimer midway through the third as the Islanders improved to 13-5-2 away from the Nassau Coliseum.
While the Maple Leafs certainly hoped to have a playoff spot secured by now, Franson insists they have not gotten ahead of themselves.
"This slump has nothing to do with us chasing a playoff spot," he said. "We have gotten away from our system a bit and we have to find a way to stop the bleeding. Our lack of success in the past few games has nothing to do with us thinking we have a playoff spot wrapped up. We don't work that way. We work one day at a time."