DALLAS — His first showdown with the Islanders still is a week away, but facing the Rangers on Saturday night at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena for the first time as a Maple Leaf also will stir the emotions of John Tavares, who spent nine seasons battling in the New York rivalry.
“I think it’s different,” Tavares told Newsday in a telephone conversation on Friday afternoon. “But any time you’re being part of an Original Six matchup, I definitely notice. There’s something special about that and a uniqueness to that. So it’ll be cool to experience that for the first time, a Toronto-New York Original Six game.”
Tavares signed a seven-year, $77-million deal with his hometown Maple Leafs on July 1. The first of three regular-season matchups against his former team will take place Dec. 29 in Toronto. The Maple Leafs will play at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 28 and April 1.
Tavares has played 43 career games against the Rangers and has 14 goals, 24 assists and 42 penalty minutes, meaning 13.7 percent of the penalty minutes he compiled as an Islander came in those rivalry games.
Statistically, Tavares’ best season against the Rangers was in 2011-12, as he had four goals and five assists in six games. But 2014-15 stands out to Tavares because of how the Rangers and Islanders battled near the top of the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers finished first with 113 points and the Islanders were third with 101.
“There’s a lot to play for, a lot on the line, playoff seeding,” Tavares said. “When you’ve got that kind of rivalry and both teams are playing that kind of hockey, the games are that much more intense and that much more meaningful.
“You see a lot of the same players over the years,” Tavares added. “Both fan bases, being from the same area and just how passionate New York people are about their sports, those atmospheres at the Coliseum, Barclays and the Garden were great.
“Especially the Coliseum. The passion of the Islanders’ fan base and [the Coliseum] certainly known as a barn for a reason,” Tavares said. “It’s one of those old buildings with a low ceiling and the fans are right on top of you. There were a good amount of Rangers fans, too. It was really cool to be a part of.”
Tavares never attended a Maple Leafs-Rangers game while growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, but he revered the rivalry.
“Just being hockey-crazy as a kid, I loved the game and I just wanted to learn the history of it,” Tavares said. “You learn the Original Six and what those teams meant to the league. They put the league on the map in North America.”