DENVER - Thomas Vanek came to the Islanders with the well-earned reputation of goal- scorer. Much like Matt Moulson, the popular Islander who was dealt (along with two draft picks) to the Sabres for Vanek, he was going to be the guy who deposited sweet passes from John Tavares into opposing nets with frequency.
Vanek has done that, scoring 11 goals in the 29 games he's played with the Islanders before Friday night's game against the Avalanche. But perhaps it's been a surprise to see him make plenty of his own passes to Tavares and Kyle Okposo, who both have more goals than Vanek since his arrival on Oct. 27.
Did Tavares know Vanek had these kinds of passing skills? "No, actually, I didn't,'' he said. "Playing with Matt for so long, you get used to a lot of tendencies, so there's certainly the adjustment period. I think even when maybe you're not as open as you think, he looks to find you. And he'll get it there. That's something for me, always trying to be ready no matter what when he's got the puck. It could be coming your way. That element of surprise he has is something I'm always trying to be ready for."
Tavares certainly has experienced some of that surprise. Take the New Year's Eve game in Boston: Up 4-3 after another multi-goal comeback, the Islanders were hunting for a two-goal lead about seven minutes into the third period when Okposo sprung Tavares and Vanek for a two-on-one. Tavares saucered a pass to Vanek for a surefire one-timer on the off-wing, Vanek's preferred side. Instead, Vanek one-timed the puck back through the middle, behind Tavares, who wasn't expecting a return-to-sender.
"I knew I could have shot it, but I wanted Johnny to stop because I knew [Bruins goaltender Tuukka] Rask was coming over, so I thought, 'OK, I'm going to give him an easier chance to score,' " Vanek said. "I think I pass more than I should sometimes. First and foremost, my role is the goal-scorer, but I think I'm a pretty good playmaker as well. Whether people believe that or not, that's OK. For me, it's not that I want to pass. The way I look at it is, am I giving myself a better chance to score or for him to score?"
Tavares learned quickly, though. Two games later, against the Hurricanes, Tavares converted another tight-space feed from Vanek to tie it at 1-1 in the second period.
After a slow start to his Islanders career, Vanek is flourishing, though a bit more as a setup man. He had 10 goals and 15 assists in the last 23 games entering last night. In that same span, Okposo (11-13-24) and Tavares (11-18-29) have scored more goals.
The extra pass, from Vanek or his linemates, can drive the coaching staff a bit nutty. Although Tavares and Vanek scored against Carolina, that line as a whole was off its game in a 3-2 loss to the Hurricanes a week ago. In their eagerness to create offense, the three sometimes can bolt the defensive zone too quickly or forget about the third man high in the opposing zone. When there's one pass too many on a scoring chance, that can make the coaches even nuttier.
"I always tell him and Kyle, you don't always have to look to pass," Tavares said. "We've got to get some shots, especially in scoring opportunities like that. At the same time, he's got the creativity and the ability to make those plays."