The fashionable cliché on Long Island these days is that as John Tavares goes, so go the New York Islanders. Even a frigid, snowy night couldn’t cool him off. Or his line for that matter. That’s because the Isles came back to defeat their archnemesis, the New York Rangers, 5-3, at Madison Square Garden Tuesday.
The top unit of Kyle Okposo, Thomas Vanek and Tavares accounted for seven points after leading the Isles back from a 3-1 deficit. It had been the same predicament the team found itself in only the day before against the Philadelphia Flyers, before winning that game, 4-3, on Okposo’s goal in a shootout.
The win propelled the Islanders, 8-3-0 in their last 11 games, to a plodding 5-11-3 against the Metropolitan Division and 2-1 against the Rangers this season. More important, they’ve positioned themselves in the playoff hunt, which nearly became an afterthought earlier in the season.
Coming into the contest, the Islanders first line accounted for 56 of the team’s 136 goals. Or, in other words, they have provided 41 percent of the production to date. Not too shabby since coach Jack Capuano’s training camp thought-bubble burst all over his head by late October. Pierre-Marc Bouchard (since waived), brought over from the Minnesota Wild, and perennial 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson were originally penciled in on Tavares’ wings.
The only constant has been Tavares, the best player in the Eastern Conference not named Crosby.
Enter Okposo and ex-Buffalo Sabre sniper Vanek, who was acquired for Moulson in a package deal Oct. 28. Vanek, with the game-winner on the power play for his 14th goal with the Isles, has contributed 36 points. Okposo (51 points) had two assists Tuesday after netting the game-tying power-play goal in the closing minutes of regulation against the Flyers Monday. In one of the more benign statistics of the year, Okposo has four goals and five assists in eight games since his daughter was born.
Hey, in our stat-happy world, kids should count for something.
Tavares and company offset a near-equal outburst by the Rangers' top unit of Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Rick Nash, who has been hotter than a steaming tea kettle as of late. The line accounted for six points.
The Islanders were buoyed by uncharacteristic energy for a team that has played four games in six days. (In fairness, the Rangers were also playing their fourth game in the past six days). But such is the norm in a season in which the Winter Olympics loom.
In a frenetic first period, Nash registered the game’s first two goals. Happy days were here for the Blueshirts if one puts faith in the effluvia polluting the sports landscape these days. Meaning the endless stats. After all, the Rangers had been 21-3-1 when scoring the game’s first goal.
Up in smoke that went.
Tavares et al. went to work six minutes later to make it 2-1. Like Sidney Crosby, he makes everyone around him better. To get on the scoreboard, Tavares fed a juicy pass to fourth-liner Matt Martin, he of two goals this season. Martin jumped on the ice and immediately navigated to the slot. Rangers goalie Cam Talbot, filling in for an ill Henrik Lundqvist, had little chance to react to Martin’s first goal in 38 games.
On the Islanders' second goal, to pull within one, the top line was at it again. Defenseman Thomas Hickey jumped into the play and finished a beautiful tic-tac-toe play in which Vanek dished to Okposo on the goal line, right of the net, before he found the streaking Hickey left of Talbot. Vanek increased his point-scoring streak to six games.
Without a doubt, others benefit from Tavares’ hockey IQ. On the game-tying goal, he came down the left wing, unloaded a wrister from an angle that made it difficult for Talbot to corral the save. The puck ricocheted into the slot and onto a wide-eyed Colin McDonald’s stick. McDonald twirled around to beat Talbot's glove side to tie the game, 3-3.
The Rangers' ability to hold opponents to two or fewer goals in seven consecutive games became moot.
Okposo and Tavares lead the team in shots, a surprise considering that shooting-happy Vanek has never been shy about possessing the puck and firing at will. However, add in Vanek’s 50 attempts from Buffalo earlier this season, and he easily eclipses the aforementioned two in shots on goals. As a unit, the line is responsible for nine of the 15 game-winning goals this season.
Of course, this segues to Tavares’ final magic. He galvanized a three-point night by feeding Vanek on the winning goal, with Kreider serving a costly too many men on the ice penalty. Tavares slickly redirected a Frans Nielsen pass from the point to Vanek, who cut toward the net and beat an out-of-position Talbot low.
Game. Set. Match.
The obvious catalyst is Tavares. He makes superhuman goalies like Talbot, backup or not, look average. Talbot entered the game 10-3-0 this season with a microscopic 1.62 goals against average and .940 save percentage.
Yet if the Islanders are to make a serious move, there’s little doubt the top line will have to continue like the little engine that could. And if it can’t, that same engine may seize not only the Isles' production, but its playoff hopes, too.
Implied another way, as Tavares and linemates go, so go the Islanders.