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Tavares paying big dividends for Islanders

by John Kreiser
John Tavares is wasting little time showing why the New York Islanders were so eager to get him signed to a long-term contract.

The first pick in the 2009 Entry Draft had the best two-game stretch of his career last week when he posted back-to-back four-point outings as the Isles beat Tampa Bay and the Rangers. Tavares had two goals and two assists in the first period of a 5-1 victory against the Lightning, then had an assist before scoring the last three goals in the 4-2 win against the Rangers.

Tavares is noticeably bigger and stronger in his third season, and it shows -- he's playing like someone ready to make the leap into stardom. The Isles signed him to a six-year contract extension this summer, locking him up until 2018. Four games into the season, it looks like one of the smartest moves of the year.

Five up -- Five players who are off to a hot start:

John Tavares
Center - NYI
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 3 | PTS: 8
SOG: 12 | +/-: 4
Kari Lehtonen -- Dallas is off to a 4-1-0 start, including 4-0-0 at home, and Lehtonen has all four wins for the surprising Stars. He's allowed just six goals and leads the NHL with a .955 save percentage.

James Neal -- With Sidney Crosby still hurt and Evgeni Malkin battling knee problems, Neal has given the Penguins a much-needed dose of offense. After scoring just once in 20 games after coming over from Dallas last February, he has five goals in six games this season.

Phil Kessel -- Toronto paid a huge price to bring Kessel from Boston two years ago, and he's one of the big reasons the Leafs are off to a 3-0-0 start. Kessel has five goals in his last two games and shares the scoring lead (eight points). His play away from the puck is also improving -- he's the early co-leader in plus-minus at plus-7.

Johan Hedberg -- Just as he did last season, Hedberg has stepped in when Martin Brodeur went down with an injury and given New Jersey solid goaltending. He's 3-0-0 with a 1.41 goals-against average -- and has stopped all four shootout attempts he's faced.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- The top pick in the Entry Draft this past June is making it hard for the Edmonton Oilers to even consider sending him back to juniors. He had a goal in his first NHL game and three more in his third.

Five down -- Five players who are struggling:

Corey Perry -- The reigning Hart and Richard Trophy winner and linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan are off to a slow start with the Anaheim Ducks. None of the three has a point through Anaheim's first three games.

Steve Mason -- The Calder Trophy season of 2008-09 is becoming a distant memory for Mason, who is 0-4-1 with the winless Blue Jackets and has a 3.40 goals-against average and .882 save percentage.

Marco Sturm -- Vancouver signed Sturm to add some secondary scoring -- it's safe to say the Canucks probably hoped for more than no points and a minus-4 rating in five games.

Colby Armstrong -- Toronto is off to a 3-0-0 start, but not because of Armstrong, who's gone pointless and is minus-3 in three games.

Joe Thornton
Center - SJS
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 8 | +/-: -1
Joe Thornton -- San Jose's captain is one of the NHL's premier passers, which makes his scoreless start in the Sharks' first three games somewhat puzzling.
Injuries, news and notes -- Ten months after being sidelined with a concussion, Sidney Crosby has the OK for full contact at practice. The question now is how long the Penguins will go before allowing Crosby to play in a game again.

Out -- The Penguins were without their other star center, Evgeni Malkin, against Buffalo on Saturday. He's been battling knee problems, though he looked good in games Tuesday and Thursday. … Anaheim will be without forward Jason Blake for about three months. Blake will undergo surgery after suffering a deep cut above his left wrist in the third period Friday night. He'll have corrective surgery to repair tendon damage. … Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty left Saturday's game with an upper-body injury and didn't return. … Rick DiPietro's luck continues to be awful. The oft-injured Islanders goaltender is out indefinitely with a concussion after taking a shot in the side of the mask during practice. He's played just 39 games in the past three seasons due to a litany of injuries. … Rangers forward Wojtek Wolski missed Saturday's game with a groin injury, and defenseman Michael Sauer sat with a shoulder injury. … Ottawa forward Bobby Butler missed all three games last week with a groin problem. … St. Louis sent center Andy McDonald home to visit with club doctors, who will check for a possible concussion. McDonald missed 24 games last season with a concussion. … Montreal defenseman Ryan White had sports hernia surgery this past Wednesday and is out indefinitely. The Canadiens also lost defenseman Jaroslav Spacek with injured ribs forward Mike Cammalleri with a leg injury. … Edmonton forward Ales Hemsky left Thursday's game in Minnesota with a right shoulder injury -- it's the same shoulder he has surgery on last season. Forward Darcy Hordichuk injured his knee on Saturday. … Boston center David Krejci missed games Wednesday and Saturday with a leg injury. Defenseman Adam McQuaid sat out Saturday with a head injury after crashing into the boards Wednesday night in Carolina … Nashville put forward Martin Erat (upper body) on IR. … Chicago's Marian Hossa missed Saturday's game with an upper-body injury. … Washington goalie Michal Neuvirth missed the Caps' last two games with a lower-body injury.

Returning -- Dallas took defenseman Adam Pardy (ribs) off injured reserve, and he returned on Saturday. … San Jose goaltender Antti Niemi dressed as a backup Friday and Saturday. He may start Monday; if so, it would be his first action since offseason surgery to remove a cyst from his knee. … Montreal forward Lars Eller returned Thursday after missing two games with a shoulder injury. … Chicago forward Viktor Stalberg returned Saturday after missing three games with a knee injury. … Minnesota goaltender Josh Harding played Saturday for the first time since March 26, 2010 -- he missed all of last season after hip surgery.

Still out -- Hawks forward Ben Smith is skating at practice but still isn't playing due to a preseason concussion. … Washington defenseman John Erskine has yet to play as he recuperates from offseason shoulder surgery. He hopes to be cleared for contact soon. … Buffalo forward Jochen Hecht, who didn't play in Europe due to a concussion, sat out the Sabres' games Friday and Saturday as well. … Edmonton defenseman Ryan Whitney has yet to play due to the ankle injury that ended his 2010-11 season in January. Defenseman Taylor Fedun is home but out indefinitely after breaking his leg on Oct. 8. … Montreal defenseman Chris Campoli's leg injury, sustained during the Canadiens' final preseason game, will keep him out indefinitely. The Habs' top defenseman, Andrei Markov, has yet to play this season as he recuperates from knee surgery.  … Nashville center Mike Fisher is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and hasn't played yet. … Tampa Bay defenseman Mattias Ohlund could miss another month after having arthroscopic surgery on both knees. … Toronto center Tim Connolly has yet to play this season due to an upper-body injury he says may be worse than he thought.

The week ahead -- The schedule starts to normalize, with 22 of 30 teams playing three games. After a week that saw most of the teams in the Pacific and Mountain time zones either on the road or recuperating from a trip to Europe, there's a lot more action out West.

Games to watch:

Florida at Tampa Bay (Oct. 17) -- After opening their season with five games on the road, the Lightning finally return home to the newly renovated St. Pete Times Forum for the back end of a home-and-home series with their in-state rival.

Colorado at Toronto (Oct. 17) -- The Avs are trying for a perfect 5-0-0 road trip -- but to get it, they'll have to beat the Leafs, who’ve won their first three games, all at home.

New York Rangers at Vancouver (Oct. 18) -- The Rangers' season-opening road trip brings them to Vancouver, a place where they haven't won since 1997, for the first of four games in seven days in Western Canada.

Washington at Philadelphia (Oct. 20) -- The top two teams in the East through the first few games of the season get together for the first of four times this season.

Detroit at Washington (Oct. 22) -- The Caps get their second tough test in three days when the Wings come to the nation's capital in a battle of teams that won their first four games.

Tough week ahead:

Dallas Stars -- After spending most of the first week and a half of the season at home, the Stars hit the road with a visit to Columbus followed by a Friday-Saturday swing through Southern California.

Nashville Predators -- The Predators make the first of their two annual trips to Western Canada, playing at Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary.
New York Rangers -- The Blueshirts have seen Europe and Long Island, and they'll get a tour of Western Canada this week with stops in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton (plus Winnipeg next Monday) before finally playing their home opener on Oct. 27.

Easy week ahead:

Boston Bruins -- The schedule maker has been kind to the defending champs in the early going, and that continues this week. The Bruins have three games, all at home, and two against teams that have played the night before.

Tampa Bay Lightning -- With their five-game, season-opening trip out of the way, the Lightning open the renovated St. Pete Times Forum against Florida on Monday, then host the Islanders and Buffalo.

Vancouver Canucks -- The Canucks return home after a four-game-in-six-day road swing for a week that sees them host the Rangers, Nashville and Minnesota.
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