VANCOUVER, British Columbia
The Islanders moved on from John Tavares’ exit via free agency pretty much on July 1, the day he signed a seven-year, $77 million deal with his hometown Maple Leafs. The only residual effect has been the collective chip on the team’s shoulder to disprove all the gloom-and-doom predictions about life without the former captain.
Still, the Islanders faced numerous questions about Tavares as they traveled through Canada this past week during a stretch of six straight games against Canadian opponents, culminating with the Maple Leafs making their first visit to NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Thursday night.
“I’m anticipating a pretty wild crowd and a great atmosphere,” said defenseman Thomas Hickey, Tavares’ teammate for six seasons. “We’ve got passionate fans and they’re going to be ready. The biggest thing at the end of the night is who’s going to win. But I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of stuff in between. Our fans will get up for that one.”
Hickey said he more than understands why the fan base, for the most part, is so sour on Tavares, who had indicated he wanted to remain with the Islanders and requested that he not be dealt at last season’s trade deadline.
“Of course I understand that,” Hickey said. “I understand both sides. He’s a great friend and a great teammate for a long time. I can understand them being upset because, once you know our fans, they are loyal. They are passionate and you’re with them or you’re against them. But there’s two sides to look at. As a player, you can see both of them and understand both of them.”
“I think everybody is anticipating the game and that’s definitely one that’s been circled on the calendar,” added left wing Andrew Ladd, who played two seasons with Tavares. “I guess time will tell in terms of the reception that he’ll get. From my standpoint, he did a lot of really good things and was involved in the community and was a great teammate. He’s got a good rep in this room.”
The Islanders dominated the first meeting, earning a 4-0 victory in Toronto on Dec. 29 as center Mathew Barzal notched his second career hat trick.
Coach Barry Trotz, in his first season with the Islanders, said there is no “ill will” toward Tavares and that he earned his right to be a free agent.
Then again, Trotz indicated the only time the topic comes up is when media members ask about it.
“We don’t really look at the past, we really look at where we’re going,” Trotz said. “There’s no sense looking at the past. It’s not going to do us any good now. This is a group that got to re-forge their identity a little bit and they take pride in that.”
Robin Lehner struggled this past week.
Not with his game. With his new goalie pads.
He first donned them in a 5-2 win over the Oilers on Feb. 16 at Barclays Center and continued trying to break them in through Tuesday’s practice in Calgary and Thursday night’s 4-3 overtime loss at Edmonton.
“I really don’t like it,” Lehner said. “They look good but I just really hate new pads. My old pads are really broken down and, sometimes, you’ve just got to do it and be uncomfortable for a couple of weeks and then, hopefully, they break in.”
Lehner said he’s noticing his equipment more than usual at present.
“I change my movements,” he said. “I don’t really move like a regular goalie. I’m a little bit unorthodox with how I move. I flow a little bit more. I’m not as static in my movement. It’s just a feel when my gear is broken in. I don’t feel my gear. When I don’t feel my gear, I feel good. When I feel my gear, it’s just annoying. You just have to be uncomfortable.”
Lehner has gotten used to that this season with new NHL guidelines shrinking the size of chest protectors.
“The way guys are shooting now, it’s insane,” Lehner said. “People’s snap shots these days are so hard, it’s like slap shots. When they changed the gear with the chest protectors this year, the amount of bruises I have on my arms after practice is insane.”
Now he gets it
Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello has been an NHL executive since 1987, but he said it wasn’t until the Islanders’ first game back at the Coliseum on Dec. 1 that he truly appreciated the passion of the Long Island fan base.
The Islanders rallied from a two-goal deficit for a 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets in that game.
“I never knew what it was until I came here, but I found out pretty quick,” Lamoriello said. “We had that power play [in the second period] and the whole building was booing. So I realized where the passion was.”
Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov reached 100 points in his 62nd game on Thursday, marking the fastest an NHL player has gotten to the milestone since Penguins Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux reached 100 points in 61 games in 1996-97. Here are the most recent Islanders to reach 100 points in a season:
1992-93 – Pierre Turgeon (58 goals, 74 assists for 132 points in 83 games)
1989-90 – Pat LaFontaine (54-51-105, 74 games)
1985-86 – Mike Bossy (61-62-123, 80 games)
1984-85 – Mike Bossy (58-59-117, 76 games)
1984-85 – Brent Sutter (42-60-102, 72 games)
1984-85 – John Tonelli (42-58-100, 80 games)