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John Tavares frustrated, but he doesn't have to carry Isles

John Tavares of the New York Islanders looks

John Tavares of the New York Islanders looks on after his team surrendered a third period goal against the St. Louis Blues during an NHL game at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The conversation came at the end of John Tavares' scrum with reporters following the Islanders' 3-2 shootout win over the Devils on Monday.

It was brief. Tavares was asked if he's feeling healthy.


Just frustrated?


It was worth a question to see whether Tavares, held without a shot on goal in Monday's game for just the fourth time in the past three seasons, was feeling poor physically.

His frustration was evident. It boiled over at a very inopportune time on Monday, in the closing minutes of a 2-2 game. Devils defenseman Marek Zidlicky stepped up into center ice and sent Tavares flying, dangerously and legally; Tavares responded with a spear to Zidlicky's midsection, drawing a two-minute penalty with just 1:49 left in regulation of a game the Islanders had clawed back to tie.

The team's last-ranked penalty-kill unit turned into tigers, not allowing the Devils a shot and the second crucial point went to the home side in a shootout win -- during which Tavares was denied by local kid Keith Kinkaid.

"I owe those guys dinner," Tavares quipped after the game.

"I don't have any concern," Jack Capuano said of Tavares. "Your leaders get frustrated. They want to lead, they want to help your team. He's going to see tough-checking 'D', tough-checking forwards every night. I have no issues."

Tavares' production has slowed since a torrid start to this season, when he had two goals and seven assists in the Islanders' first four games. The team has continued its run with the most wins in the Eastern Conference heading into games in Detroit Friday and against the Lightning Saturday at the Coliseum.

Tavares has put up 10 goals and eight assists in the past 29 games, a decent pace for some NHL forwards, but not for the Isles' star.

His power-play numbers are excellent, as usual: Six goals, including two overtime game-winners, and 13 power-play points, tied for seventh in the league. But his 14 points at even strength are third on his own team, behind Ryan Strome and Kyle Okposo.

There is perhaps the one thing missing from this well-assembled Islanders team: a dedicated point-producer to play on Tavares' left at full strength. Nikolay Kulemin has been there most of the season after a host of auditions in training camp. Kulemin is Paul Bunyan with a hockey stick out on the ice, able to create space for his talented linemates, but he is not a finisher of the highest order.

Josh Bailey moved up to Tavares' left wing during Monday's game and, based on practice Wednesday, appears to have the job for the short term. Bailey has the offensive skills that are a closer match with Tavares and Okposo, but will there be enough room to operate when opposing teams send out their top defense pair to hassle No. 91?

These are nagging problems, not headlining ones. The Islanders have improved so vastly around Tavares this season that he doesn't need to carry them, much as it frustrates the captain to not be dominating right now.

"Good teams obviously have top-end skill guys and sometimes teams lose games because those guys get shut out," Cal Clutterbuck observed on Monday. Clutterbuck has four goals this season to Tavares' 12, but they each have two game-winners. Another reminder that you need everyone.

The Islanders are a good team with a great star. No matter what Tavares' numbers look like, it's the Isles' numbers that still matter most.

Notes & quotes:The Islanders returned Griffin Reinhart to Bridgeport and placed Michael Grabner (lower body) on injured reserve, clearing two roster spots that defensemen Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk will fill before Friday's game. Hamonic and Boychuk have missed six and nine games, respectively, with upper-body injuries.

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