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Tavares makes Long Island debut

by John Kreiser
John Tavares sat amid the hubbub of the New York Islanders dressing room after Wednesday's morning skate, admiring announcer Jiggs McDonald's ring commemorating the 25th anniversary of the first of the Isles' four consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1980s.
"Make some history of your own," urged McDonald, who handled the Isles' TV booth during the dynasty days.

Tavares just smiled.

The No. 1 pick in the 2009 Entry Draft got his first chance to impress the home fans Wednesday night, earning a first assist on Matt Moulson's power-play goal in the Isles' 4-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils at the Nassau Coliseum.

His next chance to impress Long Island fans will come on Oct. 3, when the Isles host Pittsburgh in their season-opener.

"I welcome the challenge," the leading goal-scorer in Ontario Hockey League history told when asked about trying to revive a franchise that has struggled for years before falling to the bottom of the regular-season standings in 2008-09. "I've dealt with a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations for a long time. I'm sure there will be some roadblocks and learning curves here and there -- sometimes you have to go through the hard times to get to the great times.

"I'm definitely up for it. But it's not just me here -- there's a whole team. It's the New York Islanders. Obviously we're in a rebuilding phase, and hopefully we're going to surprise some people this year."

Tavares wasn't even born when the Islanders won four Cups in a row from 1980-83, earning their place as one of the great teams of all time. But he's aware of the history that goes along with being an Islander -- and embraces it.

"I idolized Mike Bossy because he was a great goal-scorer and I loved to score goals growing up," he said of the Islander Hall of Famer, who scored 573 goals in just 10 seasons.  "You hear about the dynasty they had. People are dying for that again here. It's been a long time since winning a playoff series. I know that's what we're looking to do, to bring that winning tradition back and bring back the success this community deserves."

Tavares now has two assists in three preseason games.

Coach Scott Gordon said Wednesday morning that he's more than satisfied with the 19-year-old's progress -- and so is Tavares.

"Every day I'm feeling more and more comfortable," he said. "It's both getting comfortable and feeling my best for the start of the season and keep progressing as the year goes along. That's what we're trying to do."

Gordon said the team has been using a lot of video to help speed the rookie center's learning curve.

"We've sat down with him after each of the two games he's played and gone through all his shifts with him, the ones that had the information we wanted," the second-year coach said. "If he had 21 shifts (in a game), he probably watched 15 of them -- obviously highlighting some of the good things. We want to try to expedite the process so he gets more comfortable quicker."

Tavares was a non-factor in his debut, a 3-2 loss at Edmonton on Sept. 16, but earned an assist in the Isles' 4-2 win over Calgary four nights later.

"I think a lot," he said when asked about his improvement. "The games are the biggest time for me to learn and adjust and become accustomed to playing at this level. In the last game, I really made some big strides, and I'm looking to do the same thing today and the rest of the year."

Tavares still has junior eligibility remaining, but Gordon seemed sure that his NHL career will start on Opening Night.

"We want him to be here this year," Gordon said. "Obviously, the more than he can see -- there are some things you miss during a game and you don't get a chance to talk to the player about. Given that our expectations are that he's going to play for us, we want to allow him the opportunity to see himself often."

When asked if Tavares could be somewhere other than Long Island on opening night, Gordon replied, "As far as I know, no."

That's fine with Tavares, who's eager to get started.

"I'm feeling better each and every day," he said. "It's another game under my belt, and it will help me get used to playing here and get ready for the start of the season. I'm going to be as ready as I can be for the first game, though I'm sure that throughout the season there will still be things I'm learning and adjusting to."

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