The Game is upon the Islanders.
Yes, ex-captain John Tavares is returning to NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum for the first time since bolting via free agency for a seven-year, $77 million deal with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, and there’s no soft-selling how emotional and charged an atmosphere it will be on Thursday night as the expected sellout crowd of 13,917 expresses just how jilted it feels.
But for the Islanders’ players, who have risen to first place in the Metropolitan Division under new president and general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, Tavares’ return has little to do with the importance of the game. The Islanders made a late alteration to their schedule and did not practice on Wednesday.
“For Johnny’s sake, I hope he gets a warm welcome because he was a good player for us and he’s a friend and an ex-teammate,” defenseman Johnny Boychuk said. "At the same time, we want to win and it doesn’t matter who’s across the way. That’s the bottom line. We need to win."
The Islanders (36-19-7) opened a five-game homestand with a 3-1 loss to the Pacific Division-leading Flames on Tuesday night as the second-place Capitals – who have played two more games – pulled even with 79 points as they beat the visiting Senators. The Capitals are at the Coliseum on Friday night.
The Islanders have lost three of four, leaving them 7-4-3 since their combined All-Star break and bye week.
But the Islanders did beat Tavares’ Maple Leafs in their first meeting, a 4-0 win at Toronto on Dec. 29 as center Mathew Barzal notched his second career hat trick.
“We’ve kind of already had that game,” captain Anders Lee said. “As players, we’ve done that and moved on a long time ago. It’s a special group in here that’s done a lot of things together. All the outside stuff is going to happen. For us, we just need the two points. We’ve got to get back on track, it doesn’t matter who’s coming into our building.”
Lamoriello took to the radio on Tuesday to request Islanders fans treat Tavares with respect and remember the good things about his nine seasons with the team after being the first overall selection in 2009.
John Tavares with Isles
Not that Islanders fans seem willing to heed Lamoriello’s request. Not after Tavares maintained publicly through last season his desire was to remain with the Islanders. Not after the organization decided not to deal him away at last season’s trade deadline and get assets for the future in part because Tavares said he did not want to be traded, heightening expectations he would re-sign.
Not after Tavares posted a picture on his Twitter account on July 1 after signing with the Maple Leafs of him as a young boy sleeping on a Maple Leafs bedsheet under a Maple Leafs blanket and captioned, “Not everyday you can a live a childhood dream.”
No, that did not go over well with the Islanders’ fan base.
“It’s another game for us,” right wing Josh Bailey said. “There’s a little more surrounding it with Johnny coming back and what have you. I’m sure it’ll be an emotional night for him and some of our fans. But, at the end of the day, there’s still two big points on the line and that’s what we're going to try to do.”
“My expectations are we’ve got to win a hockey game against a very good Toronto team,” Trotz added. “Obviously, they’ll probably be some emotion in the building. We’ll have to bring some emotion and be ready to go.”
Thursday night’s game was originally the last regular-season date scheduled for Barclays Center. But the Islanders, not surprisingly, announced on Oct. 24 the game instead would be played at the more raucous Coliseum.
The Maple Leafs will also play at the Coliseum on April 1 in the Islanders’ home finale.
With Laura Albanese