Among the most predictable daily events in the National Hockey League is that opponents will do everything they can to contain the Islanders’ top line in general and John Tavares in particular. The surprise lately is that it has been working.
Including the 4-3 shootout loss in Toronto on Thursday, the captain has not scored a 5-on-5 goal in the past seven games and has not had an assist of any kind in the past six. And his goal on Feb. 16 was awarded to him when he was brought down with 32 seconds left on the way toward an empty net.
It is an unlikely streak, which is sure to end soon. But it definitely is a pain for the player around whom the franchise’s present and future revolve.
“We know we can be a lot more consistent, starting with myself,” Tavares said Thursday at Air Canada Centre, where at least one hopeful fan wore a Maple Leafs jersey with “Tavares 91” on the back. “All of it starts with me, setting an example for the group. So, I’ve just got to go out there and be really reliable all over the ice. Five on five we’d like to be a lot more productive.”
After the loss at home to the Wild on Monday afternoon, Doug Weight was displeased with both of the team’s top two lines. But he was more philosophical Thursday, even before the second line centered by Mathew Barzal responded with a big game and the Anders Lee-Tavares-Josh Bailey line was held scoreless.
“Listen, they’ve carried us the whole year. Johnny’s line has been unreal,” the coach said. “There’s ebbs and flows in seasons. This is February hockey, checking tightens up. I just know they’ve been working hard, they’ve been gearing up and when they do break out it’s going to be exciting.”
Tavares has been steadfast in not dwelling on his impending unrestricted free agency and all that goes with it — such as dreaming by people in his home region of Toronto that he will come to play there. Nothing indicates that his situation is wearing on him. He and his team believe this has just been one of those lulls that every player has. He still commands highest respect around the league.
“Johnny has been highly touted his whole life and he has worked on his game,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who coached Tavares on the 2014 Canadian Olympic team, said. “Johnny can really shoot and he is strong. He can get the puck and turn his back on you and make you look bad.”
Barzal said, “I’d say he’s the best leader in the NHL. I wouldn’t want another guy leading the way. Being a younger guy, having a guy like that to look up to, seeing him be one of the best players in the league for eight years and still being one of the hardest working guys is pretty phenomenal.”
When a Toronto-area reporter tried on Thursday to get him to address the future, Tavares said, “We still have high hopes for this season.”
Grabner to debut for Devils
The Islanders game in Newark on Saturday night will be the Devils debut of Michael Grabner, who will become the 11th person to have played for the Islanders, Rangers and Devils. He follows John Vanbiesbrouck, Mike Dunham, Kevin Weekes, Arron Asham, Sergei Nemchinov, Pat Conacher, Vladimir Malakhov, Joel Bouchard, Mike Mottau and P.A. Parenteau . . . The Devils will retire Patrik Elias’ number on Saturday . . . Alan Quine has been placed on injured reserve with a lower body injury.