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Tavares facing Islanders with Maple Leafs will be strange for former team

New York set to play against onetime captain for first time

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

NEW YORK -- The New York Islanders will do everything they can to treat it like just another game, but they admitted it will be a bit different when they look across the ice on Saturday and see John Tavares wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.

"Once the puck drops, I think you're playing another game," forward Josh Bailey said in advance of the Islanders' first game against their former captain (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, CBC, SN1, MSG+, NHL.TV), being played at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. "I understand it, obviously; he spent a long time here. Obviously it's going to be talked about, especially with it being Saturday night, 'Hockey Night in Canada' game. But once the puck drops, everyone settles into their game.

"I think it will be a little bit [weird]. But I think it's weirder being in his situation; he's the one who's got to play his old team and so many guys that he's close with. For us, it's just one guy. I'm looking forward to it."

Video: TOR@CBJ: Tavares goes top shelf for second goal

Tavares, 28, was the No. 1 pick by the Islanders in the 2009 NHL Draft and played his first nine pro seasons in New York, where the center had 621 points (272 goals, 349 assists) in 669 games. He was Islanders captain from 2013 through last season before signing a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Maple Leafs as an unrestricted free agent July 1. 

"I think that the whole decision in the summer, that's a personal decision between John and his family and what have you," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said after a 6-3 win against the Ottawa Senators at Barclays Center on Friday. "I know he's got a lot of good friends in our room, but I think at the same time, they have to have a little bit of hurt that he decided to … you know, they understand it. But they'd like to have him as a teammate, and he decided that he didn't need them as teammates anymore.

"We're playing a very good hockey team. We'll just try to be as good as we can be against a very good team."

Tavares has thrived in his first season with the Maple Leafs; he scored his 25th and 26th goals in a 4-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday. He's tied with defenseman Morgan Rielly for second on Toronto with 44 points in 38 games.

The Maple Leafs (26-10-2) are in second place in the Atlantic Division, six points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"It's definitely going to be different," Islanders center Casey Cizikas said. "We're going up against a [heck] of a competitor, a [heck] of a team that's scoring at an unbelievable pace. We have a lot of work ahead of us. It's definitely going to be an emotional game and a big game at the same time."

The experts felt the Islanders, who failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs the previous two seasons with Tavares, would struggle without him. But with Lou Lamoriello as general manager and Trotz as coach, New York (19-13-4) has managed to stay afloat and trails the Pittsburgh Penguins by two points for third place in the Metropolitan Division.

"I don't think I ever believed that for a second," Bailey said. "I think we're all aware that things can turn in a hurry, positive or negative. You just want to keep that even keel and keep believing in what we're doing and just keep climbing."

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