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John Tavares drives himself, Islanders to new heights

John Tavares of the Islanders is seen on

John Tavares of the Islanders is seen on the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers in a NHL hockey game at Nassau Coliseum. (April 9, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Evgeni Nabokov has been around long enough to have seen all different sorts of star players. John Tavares is a different breed of star, the kind that knows what is expected of him yet continues to grow and improve.

And this first playoff trip for Tavares and the Islanders is just another opportunity for growth for Tavares, who tried and succeeded in changing and adapting his game yet again in just his fourth NHL season.

"You talk to him sometimes and you think, all the expectations and the media and the coaches all [focusing] on this guy, and he's only 22 years old,'' Nabokov said. "He's 22. What the heck was I doing when I was 22?''

Tavares has been blending all his skills, honing and sharpening the ones that needed work, for four years now. He has gone from a shy yet intense 19-year-old who beat himself up for every mistake to a player who leads by example to one who speaks up when the time is right for his teammates.

And the burning desire to keep getting better and to top whatever accomplishments he's had keep propelling Tavares to new heights. He had 24 goals his rookie season, 29 his second season, 31 (and 50 assists) last season and 28 in the 48-game season that just ended, a 48-goal pace for a full 82-game schedule.

But it was only this season in which the Islanders pulled together around him, realizing that Tavares always can be great but the team would never improve unless everyone drove themselves as hard as he does.

"We got hungrier and hungrier; we didn't play well and then fade,'' Tavares said. "We just keep getting better and that's the exciting part for us. We didn't seem to put any of our focus on the outside, we just worried about in here, the belief in here and knowing that when we play our game, we're a tough team to play against, no matter who we're playing.

"I feel like we've willed ourselves a lot of times. That's made a big impact in our locker room.''

But there is no comfort there, not yet. Tavares has learned to harness the strong emotions that frustrated him as a rookie, when the goals and points didn't come nearly so easily as they did when he was a precocious adolescent rewriting the record book in the Ontario League.

That doesn't mean he's eased off his singular focus to always be the best.

"When I came out of junior, I was obviously known as a guy who could score goals,'' he said. "I was known for that my whole life. It's what I do best, what I love to do best. But I knew as a player that I needed to mature in a lot of ways -- I worked on my skating, getting stronger, becoming a better athlete, becoming a better defensive player and becoming a better playmaker as well. I wanted to make it a little bit harder to read me, make it tougher on opposing teams.''

One opposing Eastern Conference coach marveled this season at Tavares' transformation as a skater. "He's like [Jaromir] Jagr now,'' the coach said. "He has that body control and the strength on his skates that no one's getting the puck from him.''

It was skating and his commitment to defense that were considered weaknesses when the Islanders selected Tavares No. 1 overall at the 2009 draft in Montreal. His work with skating instructor Dawn Braid in the offseason has been well-documented; his commitment to playing the 200-foot game as a center, to becoming the key faceoff-taker, has been less documented, but still evident. Tavares took 930 of the team's 2,753 faceoffs this season (33.8 percent), though Tavares' 49.4- percent success rate eats at him.

"He takes it upon himself to work on these things. It's not us,'' said assistant coach Doug Weight, who was Tavares' landlord when the star was a rookie and the two were teammates. "You only have four to five athletes in each sport who have that. The ability and the drive, to know where he has to improve, whether it's on the ice or with his emotions, his leadership. It's been a maturation that's been fun to see.''

This playoff series may not lead to a Stanley Cup or even a single game won. Tavares and his teammates have achieved one new goal, but it's not all they want. It's certainly just the smallest part of what Tavares wants.

"I've always talked about being a very consistent player, playing at a high level consistently, and I'm still trying to find that,'' he said. "I'm trying to handle that on and off the ice, and I'm improving. It's part of getting older, part of being a part of this and obviously this time of year is a new experience for me. It's all another great challenge and something I'm looking forward to.''

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