There were boos and chants, of course, because John Tavares remains Public Enemy No. 1 in the minds of Islanders fans.
But the vitriol was much more subdued than it had been in his first return to Long Island, and Tavares quieted the sellout crowd further with the winning goal to help his new team clinch a playoff berth.
Of greater concern to the Islanders after a 2-1 loss to the Maple Leafs on Monday night before a crowd of 13,917 in the regular-season home finale at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum is how this will impact their postseason positioning.
“They had a lot of desperation in their game,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “We needed more in ours.”
Not only did the second-place Islanders (46-27-7) remain three points behind Washington after the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals lost to the Panthers, 5-3, but the third-place Penguins are two points back with a game in hand as they face the out-of-the-postseason Red Wings on Tuesday night in Detroit.
“Any time you lose, it’s frustrating,” left wing Matt Martin said. “There are ups and downs throughout the course of it and we were coming off a big high the other night.”
Having clinched their first playoff berth since 2016 with Saturday’s 5-1 win over the Sabres, the Islanders still are looking to secure home-ice advantage for a playoff series for the first time since 1988.
Jordan Eberle’s power-play goal at 15:55 of the third period halved the Islanders’ deficit, but they were 1-for-4 with the man advantage and it sapped momentum from their game.
“We lost every faceoff, so it’s going down the ice,” Trotz said. “Then we didn’t do a good job on entries, and usually that’s an area of our game we’re pretty good in.”
Robin Lehner made 36 saves. Frederik Andersen stopped 28 shots for the Maple Leafs (46-26-7).
“Frustrated because we were playing really well and they get a lucky goal. It just really dove on me,” Lehner said. “Still, I made some big saves right after that.”
Defenseman Calle Rosen gave the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead at 2:17 of the second period with his first career goal, a shot from the left point that hit a stick and deflected down through Lehner’s pads.
Lehner gloved Tavares’ shot off a three-on-one rush at 7:52 of the second period, but Tavares got his first point in three games against his former team when he turned an Islanders turnover into a short-side wrist shot from the left to give the Maple Leafs a 2-0 lead at 3:50 of the third period.
It extended his career high to 46 goals and set a career high with his 87th point.
But the boos and chants for Tavares II were tame compared with the Islanders’ 6-1 win at the Coliseum on Feb. 28. That night, plastic snakes were thrown on the ice during pregame warmups and a jersey was hurled at Tavares as he came off the ice. The Islanders also won, 4-0, at Toronto on Dec. 29.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like a bad breakup,” Martin said. “It’s hard. But it was definitely toned down.”
There were carryover chants of “We Don’t Need You,” but perhaps the most clever moment came when John Tonelli, who played for all four Islanders Stanley Cup winners from 1980-83, was introduced as one of the team’s alumni in attendance. That brought a chant for “The Real JT.”
“That first time was a little aggressive right from the warmups,” said Mathew Barzal, who had the puck knocked off his stick by defenseman Ron Hainsey in the final minute of the second period as he nearly had a breakaway. “Our fans are passionate.”