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John Tavares returns to Nassau Coliseum as Isles expect some players back from injuries

John Tavares of the Maple Leafs warms up

John Tavares of the Maple Leafs warms up before a game against the Islanders at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 28, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

John Tavares won’t be the only guy coming back to the Coliseum on Wednesday night.

The Islanders are expecting to see a whole slew of familiar faces as they take on the Maple Leafs in their final November game at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. That includes Casey Cizikas, who left Saturday’s game after taking a puck to the knee, and Cal Clutterbuck, who was held out of Sunday’s practice but will be good to go, Barry Trotz said.

And, perhaps in a more limited capacity, they’ll likely also see Leo Komarov, who was reinstated from injured reserve after missing nine games because of illness and neck soreness, and Andrew Ladd, who wrapped up his reconditioning assignment with Bridgeport.

Ladd, who tore his ACL last year, hasn’t played with the Islanders since March. Trotz said both would be available, though Komarov did say he likely needs a little more time skating to get fully comfortable. Additionally, Otto Koivula was recalled from Bridgeport.

What it all means is that a team that dominated with some of its key pieces out of commission will now have nearly its full arsenal for what has generally been one of the more frenzied matchups of the last two years. “In a sense, it has a playoff atmosphere,” Jordan Eberle said, recalling the earlier Tavares games against the Leafs. He added wryly, “The fans seem a little more interactive. That’s for sure.”

Tavares’ return last year provided an intense, sometimes hostile backdrop to an already emotional situation. Fans felt spurned by their former captain and were all too eager to express their displeasure, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.

Adding to the charged atmosphere is the fact that the Islanders are particularly successful against the Leafs when they’re playing a physical, aggressive game. Clutterbuck and Komarov are bruisers who were just behind Matt Martin in hits last season, and their returns could lend a little more muscle to Wednesday’s game. Clutterbuck leads the Isles with 45 hits in 16 games.

“I think it’s more or less just trying to take time and space away from their players,” Clutterbuck said. “They’ve got some world-class offensive talents and it’s not just the big names. They’ve got some depth forwards that are pretty talented and quick as well . . . And the best way to [stop them] is to get some body mass in front of them, between them and the box, so that’s how you have success against teams like that.”

Added Trotz: “That’s part of our DNA. We have to be physical, we’re going to be physical, and we can play a fast game as well . . . It would be a waste if some of our physical players don’t live up to their identity on a nightly basis.”

Still, despite all the extra emotions involved in a Tavares return — “extracurriculars,” as Clutterbuck termed them — Wednesday is nonetheless expected to be a little less fraught than last year.

“There’ll be some [emotions] but it definitely won’t be near the first time, I know that,” said Trotz in a way that seemed to indicate that few things quite lived up to the fan emotion of Tavares’ first game back last year, a 6-1 win for the Isles.

“When the crowds are chanting and they’re into the game, it’s a lot of fun,” Eberle said. “A lot of times, you kind of disregard what they’re saying because Johnny is a friend and it is what it is, but you know, for us, it’s a game where we're going in and trying to get two points and continue to roll.”

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