Before Sunday night, before his last-gasp equalizer and his brilliant double-overtime winner and his team’s first playoff series victory in 23 years, John Tavares had already begun to rewrite his playoff reputation.
But Holy Christ – or should we say, “Holy Greiss?” – what a plot twist we were in for.
In a span of about 30 minutes of hockey, Tavares went from an Islander icon to an Islander immortal. He transformed from a player who has helped this team win into a man who simply refused to let them lose. With the Isles struggling once again to clear that first-round hurdle, with 23 years’ worth of playoff demons nipping at their heels, the captain hoisted the team on his shoulders and vaulted them into the second round.
The Panthers may have their day yet, but Tavares decided late Sunday night it would have to wait.
“If you’re lucky enough to draft a cornerstone player, you hope to get into a position where you can see his true brilliance,” gushed NBC Sports analyst, Ray Ferraro, after Tavares’ winning goal. “What a spectacular effort,” he added, before condoning the play of Roberto Luongo and then giving way to a thunderous Barclays Center crowd.
Truth be told, we had seen brilliance from Tavares since the series began. What he showed us Sunday night was something greater. Something more lasting. And as superstars are wont to do, the Isles’ captain shook off a slow start to make it happen.
Looking to clinch the series on home ice, the Islanders seemed to be fighting off some jitters through the first two periods. They had trouble settling pucks, struggled to mount consistent offensive pressure and were routinely bailed out by Thomas Greiss. Tavares, meanwhile, was being smothered by a tight-checking Panthers defense.
But then, slowly but surely, the Isles came to life in the third. Leading the charge was Tavares, whose energy seemed to surge as the opposition’s waned. With the Panthers up against the ropes, the Isles’ biggest hitter went for the big blow.
As Nick Leddy – man, Nick Leddy – carried the puck up ice, Greiss dashed toward the Isles bench and Tavares jumped over the boards. Reading the play with prescient vision, he skated in a straight line toward the net; sure enough, the puck squirted free from Luongo just as Tavares arrived. Then, in the blink of an eye, he was being mobbed by his teammates against the dasher board glass, the fans shaking in rapture around them.
As overtime began, Tavares elevated his play further. His teammates have long commented on his hunger for the moment, on his desire to make a difference when the chips are down. And the way he was hounding the puck and taking men on, relishing the chance to be the hero, it was clear just how suited he is for this stage. When the game heats up, Tavares’ blood runs cold.
Midway through the second overtime, Tavares entered the Panthers’ zone with Kyle Okposo. Okposo slipped him a pass near the right faceoff dot, and Tavares pulled the puck neatly into his skates and then wired a wrist shot that Luongo denied with his left pad. Undeterred, Tavares grabbed his own rebound, wrapped the puck around the net on his backhand, and then, in another blink, there he was again, jumping up and down against the glass, his teammates piling on top of him.
There is nothing quite like watching boyish joy spill from full-grown men. And there is nothing quite like playoff hockey to pull it out of them.
Raising The Bar
“We pump a guy’s tires that don’t need to be pumped in John Tavares,” said MSG play-by-play man, Howie Rose, “but that was a transcendent play by a transcendent player who’s found even another gear in this series.”
And that’s exactly what makes his performance this year so impressive. It’s not as if Tavares had a history of struggling in the playoffs before this series began. In both his postseason performances to date – a loss to the Penguins in 2013 and a loss to the Capitals in 2015 – Tavares was the Islanders’ best player. And through the first five games against the Panthers, he was every bit the star we’ve come to know.
But he had yet to make an indelible mark on the playoffs. He had yet to truly alter a series. And sometime between the second and third period Sunday night, Tavares must have realized this.
For he dug deeper and pushed the bar even higher. He summoned something extra that perhaps he never knew existed. And man, it makes you wonder just how much more untapped brilliance remains.
This has nothing to do with Tavares’ legacy. It’s still too early in his playoff career to judge how he’ll be remembered years down the line. This is about his reputation right now. This is about how he is going to be viewed the next time the Islanders take the ice in overtime.
And what we’re left with, in the aftermath of Game Six, is a conclusion as ironclad as the crossbar that denied Riley Smith’s shot in the early minutes of the second overtime (remember that?): in a big game, John Tavares is a sure thing.