With only two goals instead of the requisite three, John Tavares still completed his own style of hat trick Sunday night. He showed the gravitas to command the Islanders’ biggest game in 23 years, the skill to pull it off and the insight to realize how much it meant to everyone around him.
And that list of three explains why the Islanders chose him first overall in 2009, when they would have been justified in taking star defenseman Victor Hedman instead, and why they were right to do what they did. Both players are towering talents, as we will see when the two are matched up in the Islanders-Lightning series starting Wednesday night. But Tavares was just the man for an organization that needed someone who wanted to be The Man.
“Well, being drafted No. 1 overall was a special thing, it was a great honor,” he said at IceWorks in Syosset Tuesday before the team left for Tampa. “They obviously believed in me to try to turn things around. I take a lot of pride in being a part of that and I want to prove that and get back to where the Islanders once were.”
Hedman, picked second by the Lightning that year and having advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, might have restored the luster, too. A standout defenseman seems to be a requirement for Stanley Cup contention. The Islanders’ glory was built on the cornerstone of Denis Potvin. But in 2009, the Islanders were adrift and irrelevant. They needed a player who craved the front seat, who wanted to be the symbol and spokesman for a work that wasn’t even in progress.
What they got was a center who became captain at 22 and who really came of age at 26 in Game 6 Sunday night, tying it in the final minute and winning it in double overtime. He displayed an amazing ability to get lost in plain sight until just the right instant — everyone in Barclays Center was focused on him, yet you were left wondering, “How was he left so wide open?”
Better even than that, right after the game, he spoke of how important the occasion was for fans of a team that had not won a playoff series in 23 years. It was reminiscent of the cool way Johan Santana appreciated how much his no-hitter, the first in Mets history, meant to everybody else.
Tavares was ready for the major moment. But he also is the right one for all the little moments, too. When the Islanders lose and other guys have bad games, he is the one who answers for it. He was raised that way, the son of hard-working parents, grandson of immigrants from Poland and Portugal, nephew of an unselfish pro lacrosse legend, also named John Tavares. Young Tavares was precocious at seven, when his parents first allowed him to play in a hockey league against older kids.
“He’s always there for us. He’s a pillar. You saw that in Game 6,” Brock Nelson said of his teammate. “He handles it all well. I think he took that on himself from when he got that ‘exceptional status’ deal. He’s very mature beyond his years, that’s for sure.”
Tavares was a national sensation in Canada at 14, successfully petitioning the Ontario Hockey League to bend its draft rules and let him in a year early as an “exceptional player” (others have followed, but before him, Bobby Orr had been the only 14-year-old in the league). Tavares was a teenage celebrity for the Oshawa Generals, once being invited to toss the ceremonial first pitch at a Blue Jays game. He was thrilled, except for the disappointment in the fact they didn’t let his teammates take the mound with him.
That was the kind of background the Islanders took into draft night, 2009. They went for the player they wanted and the man they needed. Good choice.