John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on...

John Tavares #91 of the Toronto Maple Leafs looks on against the Islanders at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

TORONTO — He’s been gone for a season and a half now. But to John Tavares, the biggest alteration to the Islanders in that span is not his departure but their defensive improvement.

“I think the proof is what they’ve been able to do,” said Tavares, who is in his first season as the Maple Leafs’ captain after serving in that role with the Islanders from 2013-18. “They’ve gone, from when I was there, we weren’t very good defensively, to now probably being the best defensive team. Extremely organized.”

Tavares did not have a point as the Maple Leafs beat the Islanders, 3-0, on Saturday night at Scotiabank Arena. He was limited to two shots in 16:57 to snap a six-game point streak.

It was his fifth game against his former team since signing a seven-year, $77 million deal on July 1, 2018, to play for his hometown Leafs. He had two goals and an assist in his first four games against the Islanders, three of which were losses for the Maple Leafs — including a goal in the final minute of the Islanders’ 5-4 win at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Nov. 13.

The Islanders went from allowing an NHL-worst 296 goals in Tavares’ final season with the team under Doug Weight to an NHL-best 196 in 2018-19 in Barry Trotz’s first season as coach. The Islanders entered Saturday having given up a league-low 102 goals in 39 games, though they had allowed a concerning 30 in their previous eight games.

Of the Islanders’ six defensemen on Saturday, Tavares was a teammate of four of them: Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Scott Mayfield and Ryan Pulock. It was the Islanders’ second game since top-pair stalwart Adam Pelech suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury.

“They have a lot of trust in their back end and what they’re able to do,” Tavares said. “Those players, individually, have continued to grow and step up and play great.

“When I played with Pelly, you saw his length and his ability to read the play and understand the game really well,” he added. “You didn’t really notice him, and I think that’s why he’s so effective. He just does a lot of things really well. He’s a key player for them, but they’ve proven that they’ve got guys that can do the job.”

For Tavares, playing the Islanders is becoming more routine.

“The significance of being there for so long and the impact on my career and my life, all those memories are always there,” he said. “I don’t think that will ever change. But the more it happens, the more familiar it becomes, so I just try to approach it the same way.”

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