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Tavares, Maple Leafs could clinch playoff berth against Islanders

Forward focuses on game, not expected rude welcome from New York fans

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

OTTAWA -- Along with being April Fools' Day, Monday marks the nine-month anniversary of John Tavares signing a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Who could have predicted back then that his former team, the New York Islanders, would go on to clinch a playoff spot without the veteran center before his new team did with him?

It's no prank. It's reality.

On Saturday, the Islanders (46-26-7) clinched their first playoff berth since 2016 with a 5-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres. The same night, the Maple Leafs failed to lock up a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, instead losing 4-2 to the Ottawa Senators.

In an ironic twist, the Maple Leafs can clinch by defeating those same Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Monday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+ 2, SNO, NHL.TV). Given the angry reception Tavares received during his first game back in that same building, a dominant 6-1 Islanders victory on Feb. 28, that's easier said than done.

"I'm sure it will probably be somewhat similar," Tavares said of the rude welcome he expects this time around. "It is what it is. Just going to go out there and try to play well and help the Maple Leafs.

"It was going to happen at some point and obviously, going back, it was going to happen again. It's just part of it. Just try to go back and hopefully we can play better than we have."

The Maple Leafs have far more pressing issues to deal with than the thousands of passionate Islander supporters who are all but guaranteed to revive the "We Don't Need You" chants they aimed at Tavares a month ago.

Video: TOR@NYI: Tavares takes the ice at Nassau Coliseum

The loss to the Senators extended a three-week funk in which Toronto is 3-5-2, outscored 44-33. Seven of those 10 games came against opponents who have been eliminated from playoff contention (Senators twice, Philadelphia Flyers twice, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, Florida Panthers).

"We just can't give up the opportunities and especially to the middle of the ice that make it tough on our goaltenders," Tavares said. "It's obviously hard to explain, it's just the attention to detail each and every shift. "It's hard to do and you're competing against other teams that are trying to implement what they're trying to do."

It was particularly difficult during the one-sided defeat on Long Island last month. Toronto opened the scoring in the first period, then allowed the next six goals.

The win was sweet for the capacity crowd, which spent the majority of the evening mocking Tavares by booing, waving rubber snakes and driving over his jersey in the parking lots outside.

His Maple Leafs' teammates felt they let Tavares down.

"We were embarrassed the last time we were there, and we know that," forward Zach Hyman said. "We want to win this game for John. He played there for so long. It means a lot to him. He's been such a great teammate for us. He's such a big part of our team that you want to help your teammate out and that's a big one for him, emotionally for sure. 

"When we went there the first time they didn't treat him like a guy who played there for as long as he did and did so many things for those fans. But we're happy he's here, he's a huge part of our team, he's made the transition seamlessly and is having an unbelievable season. It would be a great feeling to get that one for him."

Video: FLA@TOR: Tavares records first career four-goal game

From Toronto's standpoint, Tavares, who has 86 points (45 goals, 41 assists), has been everything as advertised and then some. He's established an NHL career high for goals and needs just one more point to set a personal mark in that category. While it would be satisfying to do it against his former team, the win is the most important goal with just four games remaining.

The Maple Leafs (45-26-7) are third in the Atlantic Division, five points ahead of the fourth place Montreal Canadiens and six points behind the second-place Boston Bruins. Should the Maple Leafs qualify for the postseason, another date in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Bruins seems to be in the cards.

Boston defeated Toronto in seven games during their first-round series last spring.

But the focus at present is on locking down a postseason berth.

"We want to win every night," coach Mike Babcock said. "We're selfish that way. We want to win for one another, we want to win for our fans, we want to win for ourselves. (Monday) will be no different. You do good things, good things will happen. Get prepared, let's go.

"It should be fun. We look forward to the game."

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