The memory of Brooks Orpik, the low-scoring Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman, eliminating the New York Islanders from the Stanley Cup Playoffs with an overtime goal at Nassau Coliseum in the spring of 2013 haunts John Tavares.
It's lingered for the Islanders captain, especially after he sustained a knee injury while representing Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which left him out of the equation as New York failed to qualify for the postseason last season.
"I think that's what you play for," Tavares said. "It was a series we probably felt we deserved a better fate, but in a few areas we weren't as good as Pittsburgh. We're a young team and I think we just want to keep pushing for that next level. Obviously, you want to win the Cup and you want to compete for it. Watching the playoffs as a kid, you see how much fun each and every round gets, and I think that's what drives everybody."
Tavares healed during the summer and arrived at training camp eager to help the Islanders get back on track. After several improvements to the roster by general manager Garth Snow, anything short of playoff qualification would be considered unacceptable.
For the Islanders, everything begins with the face of their franchise.
Tavares continues to be one of the League's elite talents, but his willingness to continue to grow as a leader has caught the eyes of everyone within the organization.
"I think you mature and, with that, you find your way through," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "You get to know your teammates and what motivates guys and how he needs to push them. But with that said, it all starts with yourself. I think the way that he pays the price in the offseason … we know he's a skilled guy and he's an elite player, but you have to continue to work extremely hard to maintain that.
"To me, it starts on the ice and he leads on the ice. I've seen him grow. He was a real reserved guy when I first got here [in 2010]. Now, he's really come into his own as far as his personality goes and the way that he handles himself and his teammates."
Tavares, the Islanders captain since the fall of 2013, has had the luxury of being around veteran leaders since joining the NHL nearly six years ago. After being the first pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, Tavares leaned on defenseman Mark Streit (since traded to the Philadelphia Flyers) and center Doug Weight (now an Islanders assistant coach). When Tavares was selected to play for Canada in the Sochi Olympics, he had an opportunity to learn from Jonathan Toews, the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks and Shea Weber, the captain of the Nashville Predators.
Those experiences helped Tavares become a better leader for the Islanders.
"When you're around a lot of great players like I have been in my career, you see a lot of things and you pick up things," he said. "I think it's just trying to stay within the moment, stay composed … there's a lot you can get caught up in with standings, media, all those kinds of things. I think you just make sure you're enjoying what you're doing and stay focused on the task at hand, especially when you've got a talented team like we do."
Tavares has benefited greatly from the arrival of defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup in 2011. Boychuk, who signed a seven-year contract extension last month, made a huge impact on Tavares and the rest of the Islanders.
"I think he's a guy we've all leaned on, not only on the ice but off the ice," Tavares said of Boychuk. "Whether you lose a game or you don't play very well or you're playing really well, his attitude or his demeanor just never changes."
Tavares is cut from that same cloth. No matter the situation, Tavares has always tried to lead simply by the way he carries himself on a daily basis.
"The type of player he is, naturally you're going to be a leader on the team," forward Josh Bailey said. "But I think it does come natural for him. I don't know if it's been a whole lot of evolving [since the series against Pittsburgh]. I think he was the same way then as he is now. He's not the type of guy to come in and scream at his teammates. I don't really think we have anyone like that, but we obviously all have the utmost respect for him.
"I think he leads by example. He's one of our hardest-working guys night in, night out. Off the ice, he's always so focused. He sets the tone that way for us."
It was no surprise Tavares was productive for the Islanders in the playoffs two years ago, when he scored three goals and two assists in six games. Nassau Coliseum was rocking for the Islanders' three home games in that series, and Tavares is eager to see what this spring has in store as the Coliseum hosts playoff hockey for a final time.
"It's no secret what [the Coliseum] was like two years ago," Tavares said. "I'm sure this year can only be even better. The people have been great. We're really excited about what they've been able to provide for us this year. It's been such a difference-maker. Certainly that would be a lot of fun."