The "John Tavares for Hart Trophy" movement might have been an underground story, given that the Islanders have yet to secure a playoff berth.
But here, in Tavares' hometown and the center of the Canadian hockey universe, Tavares made an MVP statement. He scored two goals, added an assist and helped lift the Islanders out of an early two-goal deficit and past the Maple Leafs, 5-3, to keep the Isles' playoff train rolling.
"He gets my vote," goaltender Evgeni Nabokov said. "He's the leader of this team, and he does all the things a leader does. He's up there for sure."
Thanks to Tavares, who is third in the NHL with 26 goals, and a group effort that turned the tide of an ugly first seven minutes, the Isles are getting up there in the Eastern Conference standings. They ran their current streak to 7-0-2 and dropped their magic number to clinch a playoff berth to six points.
The Senators, Rangers and Jets all won Thursday night, so these two regulation points were crucial. The Isles still sit seventh, three points clear of the Rangers and Jets and two points behind fifth-place Toronto, which mustered only 10 shots through the first two periods while the Isles pumped 34 at James Reimer.
The Leafs scored on their first two shots, Joffrey Lupul's power move around Matt Carkner at 5:05 and Cody Franson's open-side power-play goal at 6:41. Both came after the Isles failed to generate much on 1:28 of five-on-three time in the opening minutes.
But a couple of fights -- Carkner vs. Frazer McLaren and Eric Boulton vs. Colton Orr -- slowed things down, and Tavares' spin-around feed to Brad Boyes for a whipper past Reimer at 9:07 really got the Isles moving again.
"We've been in that situation a few times this season, and I like the way we've responded," Tavares said of the Isles' two-goal hole. "We've handled those situations real well."
Matt Moulson tied the score with a deflection of Boyes' shot on the power play at 15:03 of the first, and Moulson chipped a puck past Dion Phaneuf to send Tavares on a two-on-one shortly after. Tavares' wrist shot crept under Reimer's arm at 17:24. He added a second goal at 14:40 of the second off a pretty feed from Boyes on the rush.
Frans Nielsen's goal midway through the third put the game out of reach and marked the third time in three Islanders-Leafs meetings that the Isles had rallied from two goals down. They went 2-0-1 against Toronto, scoring 16 goals.
"Our line has been struggling a little bit, and we needed to take the lead offensively again," Boyes said.
Tavares had gone three games without a point, even though the Isles were 2-0-1 in those games. He often has said he can't do it alone with this team. Last night, he was front and center, where the Islanders do need him to be as they try to close out this regular season in strong fashion.
"He's the most special player I've ever seen up close," Travis Hamonic said. "It's great for him to have a game like this, with a lot of eyes on him."