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Tavares takes game to new level in series-clincher

Islanders captain gets tying, double-OT goals, sends New York into second round against Tampa Bay

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

NEW YORK -- The roar from the crowd of more than 10,000 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on that Friday night in June 2009 was deafening before New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow could even get the word "Tavares" out of his mouth.

Snow wasn't in the building that night; he was at Bell Centre in Montreal, ready to select the player he believed would reverse the fortunes of a franchise that, for too many reasons to list in this space, had become a laughingstock to fans and media across North America.

It was a three-player race at that draft, or at least some thought, between Tavares, defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Matt Duchene. Snow kept his decision close to the vest from the moment the Islanders won the draft lottery in April until he made his selection two months later, even if he knew all along Tavares would be his pick.

Seven years, three more bottom-five finishes and two eliminations in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs later, Tavares finally had "the moment," his moment, in this Eastern Conference First Round against the Florida Panthers that Islanders fans will remember for years to come.

Video: FLA@NYI, Gm6: Tavares wraps around for GWG to clinch

There were Tavares' Islanders, with a chance to win their first playoff series since he was 2 1/2 years old, less than a minute away from being forced to make a third trip to Florida and play a Game 7. But the captain wasn't about to have fans get back on the Long Island Rail Road, wondering if they'd ever again, or for an entire generation, ever see their team play in the second round.

With goaltender Thomas Greiss pulled for an extra attacker, defenseman Nick Leddy rushed the puck up the right side and tossed it towards the net, where Nikolay Kulemin tried to backhand a shot past Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo. Tavares, deadly from anywhere within 10 feet of the net, noticed Luongo didn't have control of Kulemin's shot and quickly pounced, tying the game with 53.2 seconds to go and sending it to overtime for the third time in the series.

The first extra period came and went without a goal. But with 9:19 remaining in the second overtime, Tavares' determination took over. He sent a shot from the right circle that Luongo denied, but the cornerstone of the franchise beat Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad to the rebound and scored on a wraparound for a 2-1 win, ending nearly a quarter-century worth of frustration.

"They've waited a long time," Tavares said. "I've been here a long time. It's obviously time for us to get over this hump. It's no secret we want to keep this going. This isn't good enough for us. Obviously it's a great feeling and very rewarding, but we want to keep this going for them."

Video: FLA@NYI, Gm6: Tavares swoops in, ties it late in 3rd

Tavares has been a star in the League since his rookie season of 2009-10, when he had 54 points in 82 games as a 19-year-old on a team that, despite having its franchise player, was still several key pieces away from contention. It took the Islanders three more seasons just to make the playoffs; while they put up a good fight, they lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were loaded with firepower and experience.

The Islanders missed the playoffs in 2013-14 but were back last season, when again they fought and even forced a seventh game against the Washington Capitals. But again they fell short, and some began to wonder if the core was good enough.

Tavares' belief never wavered. Nor did it with his teammates, which now include defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, two players who won the Stanley Cup elsewhere and were convinced in what the Islanders were building to the point where each signed long-term contracts last spring.

"It's only fitting," Boychuk said. "He's been here a long time. For him to score both goals, it was huge for him and our team. It's great to see these guys finally win a series and hopefully get to win more."

Video: FLA@NYI, Gm6: Tavares on his series-clinching goal

Tavares said he didn't give an inspirational speech in the locker room before the game. He said everyone knew what had to be done and how difficult it would have been to win a Game 7 on the road. Even as the clock ticked down to under a minute, the Islanders captain wasn't rattled. There was still time.

He made the most of it.

"I said he's the best player in the League earlier in the series, and it seemed to have made headlines, but I stand by what I say," defenseman Travis Hamonic said. "That's got to be as clutch of a performance as you can find. He ties it up and scores the winner. He's an amazing player."

"I've always said he's a pretty reserved guy," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said, "but the one thing is he's grounded and he's very humble in the way that he goes about his business on a daily basis, whether it's good days or bad days. I think there's a calmness to him that he knows he needs to lead by example. That's what you get from 91 [Tavares]. He's not one of those guys that's going to be rah-rah. When he plays the right way, it's contagious for our group. I just think that's what he's done since I've been here. He's got great creativity as we know, but he's a great leader for our hockey club."

He's a leader who understands just how important the win Sunday is; not only to Snow, not only to owner Charles Wang, not only to Capuano, but to the players who were here during the darkest of times, none longer than center Frans Nielsen, a third-round draft pick in 2002 who has worn the Islanders sweater for a decade.

"He's one of the best players in the world," Nielsen said. "He's got so much talent, but other than that he competes so hard. In practice, it doesn't matter when, he wants to compete, he wants to win no matter what he does. There's no one else I wanted to score that goal. He deserves it."

Video: Isles' core on winning first playoff series since '93

The timing couldn't be any better; Tavares, who struggled to generate offense for portions of the regular season, had nine points in his final four games and has carried his hot streak into the playoffs. Tavares had five goals and four assists in six games against the Panthers.

"He's one of the best players in the League," right wing Kyle Okposo said. "He works so hard, and to have the season he did, it wasn't the way that he wanted to play all season, but I think the last four weeks have really shown how hard we works and he deserves it."

Next up on the agenda, after a well-deserved day off Monday, will be the Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Eastern Conference champions, who disposed of the Detroit Red Wings in five games without their captain and superstar, Steven Stamkos.

For Tavares, it's nice to play the role he did in ending the Islanders' hex, but he's hoping this postseason journey is just beginning.

"It's only going to get harder, and I know our group's ready for it," Tavares said. "We're looking forward to the next challenge."

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