UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Shirtless and sipping a recovery shake, John Tavares laughed. He was coming from the hallway outside the visiting locker room at Nassau Coliseum, where Islanders winger Matt Martin was holding court with some former teammates following Toronto’s 2-1 win on Monday night. The voices were unintelligible, but the general mood was unmistakable. Wheeling around, Tavares offered a few final words of farewell and headed for the showers.
Surely it was a better feeling than the 28-year-old center’s last trip here, when Islanders fans lit fire to his old No. 91 jersey in the parking lot and plastic snakes rained upon the ice during warmups. Such was the punishment levied for Tavares’s decision to leave his only NHL franchise after nine seasons and chase a childhood dream by signing with hometown Toronto in free agency last summer. “It was hostile, for sure,” Martin recalls. Hence, the serpents.
The sequel was much tamer by comparison. A quick pregame stroll through the concourse still produced the same rainbow of nameplate replacements on various No. 91 jerseys: Phony, Liar, Twat, TavarASS, Traitor (twice), and one that had been erased altogether. But aside from widespread booing whenever he touched the puck—plus one fan near the penalty box, whose jersey read SNAKE FRAUD, shrieking like a banshee while Tavares sat for a third-period slash-Tavares received none of the same venom that he had during the Leafs’ 6-1 loss on Feb. 28.
“When you’ve been through it once, there’s a little more of a comfort level because you have a better idea of what to expect,” he said. “Just tried to focus on playing. Everything else going around me, it’s not in my control.”
Scoring probably helped. Toronto dictated the pace from the outset, stymying breakouts with an aggressive forecheck and taking a 1-0 lead on defenseman Calle Rosen’s submarining snap shot past Isles goalie Robin Lehner. But it was Tavares, patiently waiting to pummel a drop pass from winger Mitch Marner early into the third period, who ultimately gave the Leafs enough cushion to formally clinch their playoff berth. “You could just tell, our whole bench, everyone on the ice was very excited about that moment,” Marner said. “It’s great to see him score in this barn.”
It was the 46th goal of Tavares’s season, more than any Leafs player since Dave Andreychuk (53) in ‘93-94. It was also his 87th point, which set a career-high. He has delivered as advertised, the biggest free-agent catch of the salary cap era, and yet the Isles have hardly noticed his absence, either: Their postseason ticket was already punched entering Monday and, even with the loss, home-ice advantage through the conference semifinals remains in reach.
And what sane mind would want to visit this barn for a Game 7 anyway? Much of the old Coliseum charm was stripped away in renovation. The seats are all black. The exterior looks like a subway grate twisted into a puppy bowl, or perhaps a flattened pipe organ. But the soul remains. “They’re yelling at you, on top of you,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz says, reflecting on the hard-charging series in ‘14-15 that he witnessed from the opposing bench with Washington. “If you’re leaving the game, you’ve got to duck the odd beer here and there to keep dry.”
Thanks to the NHL’s ridiculous divisional playoff format, the Leafs and Isles can’t possibly meet until the conference finals. As it is, the Islanders are all but locked into facing Pittsburgh in the first round, though where Game 1 will be held remains undecided. Ditto for Toronto and Boston. But imagine: If only common sense had prevailed and teams were seeded 1-to-8, Tavares would currently be positioned to revisit Nassau Coliseum next week.
A month or so before the season started, Tavares sat down in a break room at the NHL’s annual media car wash and discussed his exit from the Island. It had been a torturous process, one that invited six clubs to make their pitches in Beverly Hills and ended with a famous tweet. “Being able to leave my mark on this game is something I want to do,” Tavares explained then. “Throughout their presentation in that meeting, it really connected me with being a child growing up here. I really lost a lot of that, because I became so inundated in New York.
“It was very eye-opening. It got a lot of emotions and thoughts and feelings coming, which is why it was such a difficult decision. They really reconnected what it means to be a Maple Leaf and why it’s special and why the fit’s perfect. That really started to stir up those feelings again.”
Of course, an equal amount of rage stirred inside Nassau Coliseum when Tavares first returned. “If you look at it from their perspective,” says Martin, “it was hard for them and it hurt to see a star player, who was here through so many down years and helped turn the franchise back to being relevant, walk away.”
But both teams have bigger tasks ahead. On the ice, at least, Monday felt less like a uniquely personal revenge match and more of a classic, tight-checking postseason tuneup. “Playoff type of win,” Tavares said later, standing behind a blue backdrop with his Maple Leafs ballcap tugged low. "That’s what matters most.”