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Tavares focused on helping Maple Leafs win his first game at Islanders

Center 'not trying to overthink' return to New York after leaving as free agent

by Dave McCarthy / Correspondent

TORONTO -- John Tavares is not sure what to expect when he plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs at the New York Islanders for the first time Thursday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, MSG+, TSN4, NHL.TV), but he is prepared for whatever reaction he might receive.

"I'm not trying to overthink it," Tavares said Tuesday. "I think I'm just going to try to go out there and be myself and play and just try to help the Maple Leafs. Obviously, it's my first time back, it is what it is. Whatever reception I get, I'm just going to try to go out there and play."

Tavares spent the first nine seasons of his NHL career with the Islanders, the final five as captain, before signing a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Maple Leafs as a free agent July 1, 2018. He had 621 points (272 goals, 349 assists) in 669 games for New York.

Tavares said he understands the reaction from Islanders fans at Nassau Coliseum may not be a positive, but that his primary focus will be performing at his best for his new team.

Video: BUF@TOR: Tavares deflects puck past Hutton

"I have a sense of what it might be like, and whatever it is, it will be," Tavares said. "I'm just going out there and try to play and do what I have to do to help the Maple Leafs."

Tavares has 66 points (35 goals, 31 assists) in 62 games this season for Toronto (38-20-4), which is in third place in the Atlantic Division.

The Maple Leafs will host the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday before traveling to Long Island. Coach Mike Babcock said he recognizes what the game against the Islanders will mean to Tavares, but he hopes Toronto will perform better than it did in a 4-0 loss at Scotiabank Arena on Dec. 29 in Tavares' first game against New York.

"I just think it will be emotional for him," Babcock said. "We still have a game before that, and we haven't spent any time talking about [the game Thursday]. The last time we played the Islanders, they flat out outplayed us, we didn't play, so we'd like to do a better job."

Tavares, who was minus-1 with five shots on goal in 17:17 in the Dec. 29 game against the Islanders, said his focus remains on the Oilers for now, but he admitted it will be difficult to keep his return to New York out of his mind once the game against Edmonton is over.

"Well, I know it's on Thursday and I'm trying to keep my focus on playing well (on Wednesday) and doing what I have to do to help the team, so I'm sure after tomorrow night's game, I'll really start preparing to go out there and just try to play well," Tavares said.

Video: OTT@TOR: Marner toe drags, sets up Tavares

The Islanders have split games between Nassau Coliseum and Barclays Center this season. Tavares, who scored his first goal in his NHL debut at the Coliseum, said he is glad his return to New York will occur in the arena he spent so much of the early part of his NHL career.

"I think it's great being at the Coliseum no doubt for myself obviously," Tavares said. "Starting there, I had my first game, first goal, a lot of great memories. I spent a lot of time there. It's a big part of the Islander history and who the Islanders are. It will be fun to be there in that environment again."

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