John Tavares needed Wednesday off, but fortunately for the Islanders, that’s all the captain appears to have needed.
Tavares practiced fully yesterday and gave the thumbs up on facing his good friends Kyle Okposo and Matt Moulson when the Sabres visit Barclays Center tonight in the final game before the three-day holiday break.
“Just needed a day to recover a little bit,” Tavares said. “Been a lot of hockey lately, so coaching staff, medical staff felt the day was necessary. It felt good to be back out there and I feel good [for tonight].’’
Tavares has taken his usual pounding as the focal point of the Isles’ opposition, including an awkward hit from the Bruins’ Kevan Miller on Tuesday in the third period that appeared to jam Tavares’ right arm into the boards. He played through it, but the Islanders signed and then called up center Stephen Gionta from Bridgeport as a precaution.
Gionta, 33, came to training camp on a tryout and was working his way toward earning a 13th forward spot with his energy and penalty-killing skills when a broken foot sidelined him. He signed an AHL contract and played seven games for Bridgeport. With Casey Cizikas (upper body) out until at least next week, the Isles wanted insurance with the bottom two lines.
“All through camp he was a veteran who played the system the right way,” Jack Capuano said. “He came from a real structured organization [the Devils] and he knows what to do out there.”
Capuano hinted it’s not just Tavares who’s banged up among the forwards. Gionta skated between Nikolay Kulemin and Cal Clutterbuck in yesterday’s practice and Tavares shared a top-line rotation with Brock Nelson. But even if Gionta sits out, getting the NHL contract (a prorated $575,000 in the NHL and $200,000 in the AHL) and call-up was a pleasant surprise.
“A nice Christmas present,” said Gionta, who can’t be sent down until after the NHL roster freeze ends Dec. 27. “It’s good to be back and finally be healthy.”
The bigger gift for the players and their fans would be a second straight win after Tuesday night’s 4-2 triumph in Boston, where the Isles gave up 50 shots and Thomas Greiss, tonight’s likely starter, made a career-best 48 saves.
“Just getting the result was a big positive,” Tavares said. “I don’t think the way we got it was particularly great for most of the game. We got some big goals, did the job penalty-killing when we had to. We have to possess the puck a little better. We’ve done a better job of that the last few weeks, just maybe not able to sustain it for 60 minutes in terms of holding on to leads or games that were tight into the third. We got a good lead and we need to keep finding ways to build on that and make it tough for teams to build on anything.”