It’s been 22 years in the making, but the New York Islanders are heading to the second-round of the post-season for the first time since 1993 and they have captain John Tavares to thank.
When the series began, it seemed inevitable the Islanders’ hopes would hinge on the play of Tavares, but few could have expected just how much. He had almost singlehandedly carried New York through the final months of the season with 14 goals, 29 points and an average ice time of 20 minutes over the final 29 games of the Islanders’ season. When things started to look bleak for the Islanders as they fell into the wild-card race, it was Tavares who pulled the Islanders up. It makes sense, then, that it was he who scored when New York needed it most in the post-season.
On a late third period rush started by Nick Leddy, Tavares drove right to the net, collected a loose puck that laid to the side of netminder Roberto Luongo and drove it home for the tying goal. Tavares’ marker, which came with 54 seconds left in the game, sent the Barclays Center crowd into a frenzy. It may have been what the hometown crowd has come to expect from their captain, but he outdid himself in overtime.
The Panthers had controlled much of the second overtime frame, but Tavares needed only rush to end the game. Coming down the middle of the ice, Tavares collected a short pass from Kyle Okposo in the Panthers’ zone, curled the puck in and fired a low shot on Luongo that gave a rebound. Tavares hopped on the loose puck, curled around the goal and snuck it in the far side.
Tavares’ play throughout the series was inspiring, and his overtime- and series-winning goal tied a bow on what was a phenomenal series for the Islanders’ captain. He scored five goals and nine points in six games, logged a ridiculous 34:49 in the Game 6 victory and was hands down the best player on the ice for each and every second of that. Few would have questioned Tavares’ ability to lead this team coming into the series, but even his biggest detractor would have to admit that the 25-year-old center has earned the right to be heralded as one of the game’s brightest stars.
None of Tavares’ contributions should downplay what netminder Thomas Greiss accomplished for the Islanders in the first round, though. The 30-year-old came into the series without ever having started a post-season contest and went save-for-save with Luongo, one of the best goaltenders in the league’s history, in a series that was decided by one goal in five of six games. Greiss turned away 221 of 234 shots he faced in the series, and he more than made the argument that he should retain the starting position in Round Two regardless of the health of Jaroslav Halak.
And while the Islanders and their fans should be elated about a series they deservedly won, it’s hard not to feel for the Panthers. The team had a dream season, and this is where it will end. They captured the Atlantic Division title and entered the post-season as a top seed, but they needed to at least push this series to seven games not only for the continued growth of the team and its young players, but for a franchise that has been struggling to pack the building. As the series wore on, this Panthers team was starting to capture the excitement of fans in Florida, and the hope is a first-round defeat won't dampen those spirits.
Coincidentally, though, the Islanders faced a similar attendance problem this season but the excitement surrounding a team that’s advanced to the second round for the first time in two decades is sure to correct that. And led by Tavares, who is playing some of the best hockey of his life, the Islanders might be thinking about another first since 1993: an appearance in the third round. But first, a date with the Tampa Bay Lightning.