If all National Hockey League players were ranked by how important they are to their respective teams, John Tavares would be mighty high on the list. Actually, if he were not No. 1, you would have to ask for a review.
He signed up for that responsibility when he embraced being drafted first overall by the Islanders, and when he agreed to a contract extension. He accepted the job of carrying the Islanders' banner: all season, at summer fundraisers and especially now, when the team is trying to win a playoff series for the first time since 1993.
Tavares, superstar and captain, understands what he means to the team and what the team means to its following, particularly this year, the Islanders' last as a genuine Long Island organization. He heads into Game 1 at Washington's Verizon Center Wednesday night fully aware that this is his time.
"It's the best time of the year," Tavares said Tuesday morning, after his last pre-playoff practice at Nassau Coliseum. "One of the best things in sports is the NHL playoffs and to be a part of it is what you dream about as a kid."
As a kid, though, you dream only about the fun and how it will make you feel. As a man, Tavares has to raise his teammates' games and the fans' spirits. He doesn't mind one bit. The "C" on the front of his jersey means a lot to him, and so does the crest that bears a drawing of Long Island.
"We're playing for the guys in the room and our team. But you represent more than that. You represent a massive community, one of the most passionate sports fan bases out there," he said. "We certainly appreciate the people and what this organization means to this community. We know there's a lot to that, we take a lot of pride in that and we don't take that for granted."
He is older, stronger and wiser than he was when he helped the Islanders put a six-game playoff scare into the Penguins two years ago. He knows that a nice try will not be enough this time, starting against the Capitals. It has been too long for the Islanders since that playoff run in 1993, one that began with a bitter win over the Capitals -- capped by a brutal hit on Pierre Turgeon, one of Tavares' forebears as high-scoring center, by Dale Hunter, Tavares' final junior hockey coach.
It figures to be a tough series against a good team with its own superstar, Alex Ovechkin. The Islanders need everyone to be at his best, and they need Tavares to be better than everybody else. He sees that as an obligation and an honor, not a burden.
Coach Jack Capuano said, "For me, your captain has to lead on the ice and off the ice, and that's what he does. He has to have respect from his teammates, the organization and the community, and that's what he does."
Tyler Kennedy, a trade deadline acquisition and former Penguins teammate of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, said, "He's a special player. This is another guy who will let me look back and say, 'I played with a great.' "
This has been an emotional look-back season for everyone around the Islanders. Tavares has observed and absorbed, meeting with the Islanders' first captain, Ed Westfall, and their greatest captain, Denis Potvin. He represents them, too.
Tavares embodies Potvin's philosophy, summed up in his favorite old movie line (uttered by Donald Sutherland in "Kelly's Heroes"): "Get rid of the negative waves, man." On Tuesday, the current captain was upbeat, even about the rocky finish to the regular season. "When things aren't going your way as much, you've got to find a way. And I think we did that," he said.
He realizes that anyone who cares will expect him to find a way to finally win a playoff round. He is OK with that. He believes he owes it to the "C" and to the crest on his jersey.