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John Tavares appears to be past his early-season struggles

The New York Islanders' John Tavares, center, celebrates

The New York Islanders' John Tavares, center, celebrates his goal with teammates Kyle Okposo, left, and Josh Bailey during the third period of an NHL game against the Calgary Flames on Friday, Jan. 2, 2015, in Calgary, Alberta. Credit: AP / Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON, Alberta - John Tavares isn't exactly easy with his self-assessments, so his admission Sunday morning that his season to date has "been a little more up-and- down than I'd like" might be a bit harsh.

Tavares entered Sunday night's game against the struggling Oilers still leading the Islanders with 17 goals and, with Kyle Okposo, sharing the team lead with 34 points. And he still is the player upon whom every opponent focuses its defensive efforts.

But even to the untrained, less critical eye, Tavares had more missteps in the offensive zone than one is used to seeing with him. At least until the holiday break, that is. Since the Isles reconvened Dec. 27 after three days off, Tavares has four goals in four games and has resumed his puck-controlling, bull-in-a-china-shop ways in the offensive zone.

Two of those goals came from Tavares' signature power moves around the opposing net, including what turned out to be the game-winner in Calgary on Friday in the third period.

"I just wanted to be more aggressive, really challenge the other team to defend, and defend harder," Tavares said. "We preach a lot about getting pucks to the net and there's certainly games where we need to do those things, but there's times when I know I have more time and space, and I need to use that. It's about managing your game and taking advantage of those opportunities."

In discussing his occasional struggles to open the season -- Tavares has gone without a point in 13 of the Isles' first 38 games after going 14 of his 59 games last season without one -- Tavares noted that missing the final two months of last season has had a bigger effect than he would have expected.

He suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee in the Olympics in February, ending what had been his best statistical season to date, with 24 goals and 42 assists in 59 games. It wasn't his team's best season, though, and Tavares' absence made little difference for a team that already was headed to the draft lottery.

Couple that long layoff with the coaches' desire to have Tavares be stronger without the puck, and there were a few off nights.

"Early in the year, the coaching staff wanted me to be a little better in that area, and it was an adjustment early, being off for so long," he said. "You work so hard on other parts of your game, I wanted to contribute offensively and also be sound defensively, as well, and that took some time, longer than I'd like."

If Tavares is just hitting his stride, that is bad news for the remainder of the Islanders' opponents. The Isles have been better than at any other time in Tavares' six-year career, with a deeper team that can make up for its star misfiring from time to time.

And he's still the one to watch.

"You see how good they've been and you know a lot of it is from Johnny putting his team on his back," said the Oilers' Jordan Eberle, a longtime friend of Tavares. "It's something that myself, Nuge [Ryan Nugent-Hopkins] and Hallsy [Taylor Hall] need to take note of and try to be the same way.

"He's obviously one of the special players in this league and you always have to be aware of him."

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