Opening Night is the one time that everyone, including the Islanders, has the right to envision the best. Hours before Jets coach Rex Ryan dropped the ceremonial first puck, in fact, John Tavares was talking about accepting more responsibility and raising his game the way other phenoms have.
He didn't flinch when someone asked him about Steven Stamkos of the Lightning, his predecessor as No. 1 overall pick. Stamkos scored 23 goals as a rookie, then surged to 51 last season. Tavares, entering his second year after having scored 24, said Saturday morning, "It's encouraging for me to see not only him, but Pat Kane had a great second year, [Sidney] Crosby had a great second year. High-profile guys made a big jump from the first year to the second year, and I think that's the transition I'm looking to make."
But less than one period into the Islanders' 5-4 shootout loss to the Stars, the crowd at Nassau Coliseum caught a glimpse of the worst: Tavares was spread out on the ice after a hit from the Stars' Adam Burish and was helped to the locker room.
It didn't seem like much of a shot and was away from the play. The official statistics did not even classify it as a hit. But Tavares never saw it coming and went down hard. He suffered what the Islanders called a "mild concussion."
That phrase isn't technically an oxymoron, but a mild concussion still is a concussion, and those are very worrisome.
No matter what the diagnosis, his departure knocked some wind out of the Islanders' dreams. Things weren't going so hot to begin with, given that Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo are out for a considerable amount of time with shoulder injuries. But this really stung.
Streit and Okposo are the Islanders' two best all-around players. Tavares is their most indispensable one. He is the one who has a shot at cracking both the 50-goal circle and the Q rating list. He is a genuinely big name in hockey, a Canadian celebrity since he was in his mid-teens. He might not have been the best player in the 2009 draft, but he was the best choice for the Islanders. Tavares is their lighthouse, someone the franchise can point to until it gets its feet on solid ground.
Coming into last night, this observer was prepared to say it's a good thing Tavares came to training camp with an extra eight to 10 pounds of muscle. The 20-year-old has some heavy lifting to do.
He is in the middle of a riddle, one more true than funny:
With Streit and Okposo out, the Islanders really, really need Tavares to have a breakout season.
"It's more responsibility for everybody," said Islanders captain Doug Weight, Tavares' mentor and former landlord. "We talked about it yesterday. We're not going to drone on about losing two great players, two great friends and characters in that room. It's a challenge for us and we've got to step up. That means John, that means everybody in that room."
Seeing him sprawled on the ice was a headache the Islanders definitely didn't need on a night that was supposed to be full of hope.
There was genuine electricity at the Coliseum. Fans were tailgating in the parking lot three hours before the game. Ryan, a big hockey fan, insisted on wearing a Billy Smith No. 31 jersey and got a big hand. Even after Tavares left, fans roared when James Wisniewski, Weight and Matt Moulson scored power-play goals. There was the nice story of Rick DiPietro's healthy return. The attendance figure of 13,351 was not a capacity crowd, but the house felt full.
The franchise is going to need Tavares back to keep the season from feeling empty.