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Tavares set for emotional game with Maple Leafs against Islanders

Center will face former team for first time since leaving as free agent

by Mike Zeisberger @zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- John Tavares is unperturbed by the criticism he continues to absorb after leaving the New York Islanders to sign a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1.

Tavares will face his former team for the first time when the Maple Leafs host the Islanders at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, CBC, SN1, MSG+, NHL.TV). He's been taking a beating on social media from many disgruntled Islanders supporters beginning with the moment he made the choice to play for the team he grew up watching. He'll get to experience those feelings firsthand when he comes to Nassau Coliseum for the first time in a Toronto uniform on Feb. 28.

He's aware of their feelings but said he'll be focused on helping his new team defeat his old one.

"Even though I'm not a big social media guy, you get a sense [of the reaction], whether it's friends texting me when I made my decision or whatnot," Tavares said prior to the NHL's three-day Christmas break. "But I'm the only one who has walked in my shoes and went through what I went through and realize what a difficult decision it was.

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"I did it because it was the best thing for me, the right thing for me. I was honest as I could be about why I made the decision, how I made the decision … That's all I can do. I can't control what people's opinions are, what they think, what they don't think. I'm just going to be myself, live my life and do everything I can to help the Maple Leafs."

The 28-year-old center said it will be a funny feeling to face the team that selected him No. 1 in the 2009 NHL Draft and that he played with during his first nine seasons.

"I assume it will be strange for sure at some level," he said. "It's really hard to say because I've never done it before. You're in one place so long and you give so much to one place. I'm sure there will be many emotions. At the same time, I have to approach it the best way I can, just like any other game. I have to do my best to help my team win and try to play my best and be as best prepared as I can.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of different emotions, but it should be a lot of fun too. Obviously battling against a lot of old friends, some good friends, some good people. In the end, the two points mean the same. That's what the focus is on. At the end of the day that's what we're trying to accomplish. But I'm sure there will be plenty of emotions."

Tavares had 621 points (272 goals, 349 assists) in 669 games for the Islanders and was their captain from 2013-18 before becoming a free agent and joining the Maple Leafs. He had 42 points (24 goals, 18 assists) in 37 games for Toronto before the break and is on pace to surpass his NHL career high of 38 goals, set in 2014-15. Toronto plays at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday (7 p.m. ET; FS-O, SNOT, NHL-TV) before hosting the Islanders 24 hours later.

Tavares was born in the Toronto-area community of Mississauga and grew up a Maple Leafs fan. In the end, he opted for the chance to play for his hometown team; after announcing his decision, he released a photo on social media showing him sleeping under blue-and-white Maple Leafs sheets as a boy.

His ties with many of his former teammates remain strong despite his departure.

"I had the majority of the team at my wedding in the summer," Tavares said. "I spent nine years with (forward) Josh Bailey, who's become a good friend and a really good player. When you are with someone for that long, you develop a really strong friendship. You learn a lot about each other as people. You still keep in touch, for sure.

"I haven't really followed them too much. Obviously I'm trying to keep my focus here. You see some of the highlights, scores, box scores, whatnot. I'm just trying to concentrate on my job here, my transition to becoming a Maple Leaf and helping this team win. You still keep in touch. Not as much during the season as you would in the summer time. But you still maintain contact with some people."

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