NEW YORK — We toss around words like “redemption” and “breakthrough” and “leadership” so often, it’s possible their real meanings get dulled, washed out a bit.
When Tavares circled the Florida Panthers net and tucked home the game winner 10 minutes, 41 seconds into the second overtime period to send the Islanders to the second round for the first time since 1993, it was as though the slate had been wiped clear for an entire franchise and its long-suffering fan base.
“First and foremost, I think our fan base, they’ve been dying for it, obviously,” Tavares said in the Islanders’ strangely muted locker room considering the great weight that had been figuratively lifted from their collective shoulders.
In some ways, his performance and the win for the team wiped the slate clean for Tavares, who had an up-and-down season but who might be the best player on the planet right now.
“I think just throughout the whole year he was disappointed at times,” said linemate and longtime friend Kyle Okposo, who drew the primary assist on the series-clinching goal. “It wasn’t the way that he wanted to play all the year. He works so hard and he just he works for everything he has, and to see the way that he’s come out, in probably the last four weeks, you can’t say enough about him. That’s why he works as hard as he does. That’s why he does all the extra things, is to score big goals and come up with huge plays like he did in this series.”
Tavares tied Game 6 with 52.3 seconds left in regulation and then scored the double-overtime winner to give him five goals and four assists in six games. He had a hand in nine of the Islanders’ 15 goals.
But it’s more than just a strong playoff series — although that in and of itself would be enough to celebrate — but also what Tavares means to this franchise.
Cal Clutterbuck was asked to quantify Tavares’ importance to the Islanders.
He thought for a moment.
“No,” he said. “No. I mean there’s just, you know, you talk about teams that are successful and teams that have won Cups. They all have a guy like that. He’s kind of taken it to a new level here in the first round and I think it’s definitely something the rest of us are going to have to get involved a little more on the score sheet, help him out.”
At times there has been speculation that Tavares would like to take his considerable talents elsewhere when his current team-friendly contract comes to an end after the 2017-18 season. After all, he had never won a playoff round with the team that drafted him first overall in 2009. And GM Garth Snow has been criticized for not assembling a better supporting cast that might ensure Tavares doesn’t seek greener pastures.
All of those storylines seem, at least for the time being, muted with the Isles’ success against the Atlantic Division-champion Panthers.
Indeed, the Panthers were the better team for much of this series — except when Tavares was on the ice.
“He’s a star player in this league. He comes up big when he has to,” Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant said. “He’s just a great hockey player and he’s a star and he comes up with a big goal tonight and big plays.”
After losing in the first round last year to the Washington Capitals, the Isles have done what all great teams need to do, take steps forward even though at times this season it appeared those steps might not be taken.
Specifically, Tavares went through dry periods as his point totals dropped from 86 last season when he was edged on the final day of the regular season for the NHL scoring title by Jamie Benn, to 70.
Last season was a great year, Tavares said. “This year was, too. Just a lot of ups and downs, some challenges for myself individually.”
“Got to overcome those,” he added. “There’s always times in your career you learn a lot about yourself. You’ve got to push through those things.”
On this night, as the sold-out Barclays Center faithful went wild at their first playoff series victory in their first season away from Long Island, it was hard to imagine Tavares wearing any other jersey than the one with the Islander logo on the front and his distinctive 91 on the back.
“People have been so good to me,” Tavares said.
He talked about the opportunities he has been given by the Islanders, to become the kind of player he wants to become.
“And obviously want to achieve something special here and want to be a part of bringing the Islanders back to what they once were,” he said.
A lot of the players in the Islanders’ locker room have grown up together. They have ridden out the ownership change and the move to the city and the disappointments of not being able to step forward. They know that Tavares burns to be the kind of player, captain, leader that can get his team there.
“I mean he’s our leader for a reason,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. “He’s one of the best players in the world for a reason. I’ve said that for a long time. I have the joy of watching him do it every game and every day in practice. He works harder than anybody. So kind of fitting that he puts us on his back and he does what he does.”