TORONTO — John Tavares never failed to tout Mathew Barzal’s offensive skill and potential during the only season the two centers spent together with the Islanders. And once their captain left via free agency, his former teammates never failed to chafe at the gloom-and-doom predictions of life after Tavares.
The total team effort the Islanders exhibited in their first meeting with Tavares’ Maple Leafs was an emphatic repudiation of the notion that they had been a one-person team during his nine-season tenure with them. Still, Barzal stood out in a 4-0 win before a crowd of 19,514 at Scotiabank Arena — thanks to his second career hat trick.
“We’re playing against one of the best teams in the league,” said Barzal, who has six goals and two assists in a four-game point streak. “Aside from John being there and all that kind of media drama, in this locker room, it was the Leafs against the Islanders.”
Robin Lehner made 36 saves for his second shutout of the season as the Islanders (20-13-4) won for the sixth time in seven games. He has allowed one or fewer goals in five of his last six starts.
“Tavares leaving, he’s a good player,” said Lehner, who has allowed one or fewer goals in five of his last six starts. “But when we play as a group, we’re a pretty good team, and we felt that from the beginning.”
The Maple Leafs (26-11-2), missing No. 1 goalie Frederik Andersen (groin), got 24 saves from Garret Sparks as they were blanked for the second time.
The Leafs were booed off the ice after Barzal’s three-goal second period, save for a smattering of “Let’s Go Islanders” chants.
It was the first game back in Toronto for Islanders forwards Leo Komarov, who signed a four-year, $12-million deal after five seasons with the Maple Leafs, and Matt Martin, who was reacquired by the Islanders two seasons into a four-year, $10-million deal.
Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello also faced his former team after serving the previous three seasons as the Maple Leafs’ GM.
A tribute video to Komarov and Martin was shown at 7:15 of the first period.
Barzal gave the Islanders a 2-0 lead at 2:49 of the second period by deflecting defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s shot from the left. His power-play one-timer from the left circle made it 3-0 at 4:56 and he completed the hat trick at 10:33 off a two-on-one rush.
“You could tell he wanted this one,” Martin said. “He wanted that big stage.”
Tavares signed a seven-year, $77-million deal with his hometown Maple Leafs shortly after the free-agent market opened on July 1. Naturally, he’s become persona non grata with most of the team’s fan base after nine seasons as the face of the franchise.
“He earned the right to make the decision to stay on the Island or come back to his hometown,” said Barry Trotz, who tied Al Arbour with 782 career coaching victories, the fourth most in NHL history. “He’s going to go down as one of the greatest Islanders of all time. Tonight, he’s not a friend. He’s not an Islander anymore.”
Tavares, drafted first overall in 2009, is a five-time All-Star who spent the previous five seasons as the Islanders’ captain. He took five shots in 17:17 of ice time.
“I’ve gone through a lot of things in my career to this point and you have a good sense of what comes at you and how to handle it,” Tavares said of facing the Islanders. “But this is a new experience.”
Valtteri Filppula gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead at 9:35 of the first period. Michael Dal Colle, the fifth overall pick in 2014, had an assist and notched his first career point in his seventh NHL game after being recalled from Bridgeport (AHL) earlier in the day.