Fans who used to adore him again reminded John Tavares that he no longer is needed here, but the former Islanders captain got everything he and his new team needed out of NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Monday night.
Tavares received another — if less venomous and vociferous — verbal lashing from the Islanders faithful, but he scored his first goal against his former team, the eventual game-winner, as the Maple Leafs clinched a playoff berth with a 2-1 victory.
“Any time you make it official . . . you’re able to take a moment to soak it in,” Tavares said. “We get to be a part of it and get that opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup. That’s what it’s all about . . . It’s just nice to make it official and punch your ticket.”
Of course, the Islanders (99 points) improbably already had done that without him. Saturday’s win over Buffalo earned them their first trip to the playoffs since they advanced to the second round behind Tavares in 2016.
“They’ve had a great season. You have to tip your cap to the way they’ve played and the type of season they’re having,” Tavares said. “Obviously, when you make the Stanley Cup playoffs, it’s a very difficult thing to do. They’ve had a great season.”
The fans certainly let No. 91 know about it throughout Tavares’ first game back at the Coliseum, a euphoric 6-1 thrashing by the Islanders on Feb. 28. He had bolted the Isles in free agency last July, signing a seven-year, $77 million contract with his hometown Maple Leafs.
The two-time Hart Trophy (MVP) finalist didn’t hear as many boos or throaty chants of “we don’t need you” this time, although the crowd erupted in cheers when he was robbed on a glorious scoring chance. Robin Lehner gloved an off-wing snapper on a three-on-one rush 7:52 into the second period.
“When you’ve been through it once, there is a little bit more of a comfort level because you have a better idea to know what to expect,” Tavares said. “I just tried to focus on playing. Everything else going around me, it’s out of my control. It’s not what I try to worry about. I just go out there and play my game.”
Tavares recorded no points in the first two games against the Isles, but he collected a drop pass from Mitch Marner and fired a wrister over Lehner’s right shoulder for a 2-0 Toronto lead 3:50 into the third. It marked his 46th goal and 87th point of the season, both career highs.
“Just trying to play my game and trying to find ways to be productive and consistent,” Tavares said. “That’s what I’ve driven for my whole career and that’s what the elite players do, their consistency and their ability to do it over the long course of a season.”