John Tavares On Long Island Is No Longer Outrageous
12:13 PM EST on December 12, 2023
Here's a little personality quiz for all you hockey fans: Five years after John Tavares turned in his Islanders "C" to fulfill a childhood dream of making a ton of money while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, which organization would you rather be attached to? In the Islanders' favor, you can count the swagger that came with exceeding expectations in the aftermath of Tavares's departure, back-to-back conference finals appearances (though one came without fans in 2020), and continued respectability with a playoff trip last year and a good start to this one. The Leafs, on the other hand, have broken more hearts on a grander scale, but unlike the Isles they can boast a playoff appearance in 2022, a series win (incredible) in 2023, and a slightly better record with a slightly better outlook so far this year.
And alongside their other forward stars, the Leafs can also dangle Tavares in front of an Islanders team that year in, year out can't find ways to create goals. Monday night was another opportunity to do such a thing, painfully, as the former New York captain faced his old team for the first time this year with a chance to become just the 11th active player with 1,000 career points. (By the way, somebody sign Phil Kessel so he can reach that mark, too.) Tavares got there in dramatic fashion, but the Islanders still came away smiling.
This particular game was a far cry from the surreal public shaming that took over Nassau for Tavares's first game back in 2019. It was, in most ways, a typical Monday night audience, with glaring empty seats in the expensive spots and plenty of Leafs fans pushing back against the home crowd's emotions. Tavares got booed regularly, but not with any profound nastiness. As the team wins without him, he fails to find ultimate glory in Toronto, and time passes, Tavares is becoming more to the Islanders what Denis Potvin is to modern-day Rangers fans—a shibboleth more than a target of authentic hatred. Maybe I'm stretching my imagination too far, but it's not even inconceivable to me that, after his career is over, Tavares could return to Long Island and get a warm(ish) reception from fans who've let their most intense emotions cool.
But that doesn't mean they had to like what he did on Monday. The Isles fought back against an early Auston Matthews goal to take a 3-1 lead midway through the game, but Tavares emerged to pot point No. 999 by maneuvering his way to the front of the crease and redirecting a wish toward the danger zone. It stayed 3-2 Isles for almost as long as it possibly could, but with just a few ticks left on the clock, Tavares hit the four-digit threshold with an assist that helped earn a point for Toronto. After winning the faceoff, Tavares placed himself in a disruptive spot between Ilya Sorokin and the puck. His positioning denied a clean save on a shot from distance, and Morgan Rielly happened to be in the perfect patch of ice to knock in the redirect. The whole of the Leafs bench emptied out to congratulate Tavares on his accomplishment, and impressively enough, Long Island hit the Leafs with boos but refrained from actually chucking any trash at them.
These Leafs, however, are not closers. The Island got its revenge in the first minute of 3-on-3. Sorokin made a save on one end, Mat Barzal and Bo Horvat slingshotted out of their defensive zone for a 2-on-1, and they executed it perfectly for the win.
This was a fun game that featured a pretty uncommon milestone and added at least a footnote to one of the league's most histrionic recent storylines. But it's also a look into how time (and winning) heals all wounds. If there's any real bad blood between these sides, nobody even hinted at it in the postgame interviews, where all the quotes were typical congratulations and humility.
“Obviously for me, the uniqueness of doing it where I played the first nine years of my career, it’s a big part of who I am,” Tavares said. “The way this place impacted me was tremendous. Really unique and cool to do it here. This place means a lot."
Both teams, though they sit in the upper half of the league, have enough of their own problems to worry about without making an enemy of a squad that's not even in their division. The Leafs, with the exception of their Saturday victory against Nashville, have had a real sleepiness to their game that's prevented them from almost ever earning two points with authority. The Islanders, meanwhile, are leaking an appalling number of chances and are staying afloat thanks only to their once-again outstanding goalie duo of Sorokin, who's first in the league in saves despite ranking tenth in total minutes, and Semyon Varlamov, the backup with a .925 save percentage so far. There's a universe where these two not-really-rivals meet in a playoff series with heart-stopping stakes and a genuine sense of danger. But here in December, we're all just trying to stock up on wins, no matter whose ex is skating for the other side.