Islanders cautiously defend their star Tavares

John Tavares, center, is congratulated by center Frans John Tavares, center, is congratulated by center Frans Nielsen, left, and left wing Thomas Vanek after scoring during the first period. (Dec. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

It's a situation that seems to happen often with the Islanders: An opposing player gets a little too zealous in trying to stop John Tavares and the Islanders' captain and star is slow to get up after a hit.

It happened in consecutive games. Montreal's Lars Eller, decidedly not a tough guy, leveled Tavares with a clean hit eight days ago; Kyle Okposo dropped the gloves to wrestle Eller to the ice immediately, and Tavares was fine.

On Tuesday, the decidedly tough Radko Gudas of the Lightning delivered a sneakier hit, pulling Tavares down after a shot and dragging Tavares awkwardly into the end boards. Tavares, who had absolved Eller of wrongdoing, did not do the same with Gudas, calling the play dirty.

Matt Martin and Eric Boulton tried to get Gudas to answer for the unpenalized play with a fight on their next shifts. Gudas declined and the game went on, despite the desire for some retribution inside the Coliseum, on the Islanders bench and across the fan base on social media.

"You have to be really careful now," Martin said. "We've seen some situations around the league and guys have gotten suspended for [retaliating]. There's cameras everywhere, so you have to do the right thing and challenge him. All eyes are on that stuff now."

Martin is referring to Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton's "retaliation" on the Penguins' Brooks Orpik for a legal hit on Loui Eriksson. Thornton horse-collared Orpik in a scrum, threw Orpik down and punched the Penguins defenseman twice. Thornton received a 15-game suspension that he appealed; commissioner Gary Bettman's ruling comes down Monday.

So now is certainly not the time to play vigilante. But the Islanders and Lightning square off twice more, the next one on Jan. 16 in Tampa.

"You try to get a guy to answer the bell, within the rules as we have them now," Martin said. "And you remember it for next time. There won't be any targeting, but you remember what he did."

Boulton: Let Parros decide

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Boulton, who played in his sixth straight game Saturday, fought Canadiens enforcer George Parros last weekend. Boulton caught Parros with a flush right hand, knocking Parros out. The big Canadiens wing had trouble getting to his skates and, after refusing to go to the dressing room, was forced to do so by game officials.

Parros hasn't returned and, amid the recent calls to ban fighting due to the lingering effects of repeated blows to the head, there was a public debate about whether Parros should retire. He also suffered an ugly concussion on opening night when the Leafs' Colton Orr dragged Parros down during a fight and Parros' face smashed the ice.

The debate will rage on, but the enforcers themselves feel the outside cries are useless.

"He's a hockey player who had two concussions this year. It's ridiculous that people who don't know anything about his medical situation are saying he should hang 'em up," Boulton said. "Loui Eriksson's had two concussions this year. Shouldn't he retire, too?"

Boulton played in his 627th NHL game Saturday. Though he plays only six or seven minutes a night, he wouldn't have stuck around through four teams and 13 seasons if he couldn't play a little, too. He knows the enforcer role has changed during his time in the league.

"Every guy who fills that role has to be able to skate and play," he said. "People are definitely trying to scrutinize that aspect of the game and looking for things. George is a grown man, he's a smart man and he's been doing this a long time. He's injured now, like anyone else. Just gotta get better and get back on the ice."

Isles too far gone?

The Islanders had 45 games left after Saturday night's game with the Ducks, and they could have been seven points out of the playoffs -- not a good position at all, but not horrible given how poorly the Islanders have played.

Still, history shows seven points is no lucky number when it comes to deficits on Dec. 22. Over the last seven seasons on this date (discounting last season, when there was no hockey being played), 18 teams have been seven or more points out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Only two have recovered to earn playoff berths: The 2009-10 Flyers, who were seven points out, and the 2007-08 Capitals, who were also seven back.

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