They were waiting. Those who follow the Islanders on a consistent basis were waiting for John Tavares to display the form that makes him one of the game’s elite centers. Facing the Arizona Coyotes at the Barclays Center on Tuesday, the captain put together a vintage performance with his seventh career hat trick in a 5-3 victory, reminding opponents of his ability to carry the Isles on his shoulders.
“He (Tavares) was good. Obviously, he had three goals in one game, but he was also possessing the puck, and he led us tonight,” Islanders head coach Doug Weight said. “I’m not all that pleased with the game, so we needed his leadership. We are trying to preach when we have the lead to stay the same way, but you got to manage pucks. It was a bit disappointing for us, but it was great to see him score, and he was awesome tonight.”
While the Coyotes entered play with a 0-7-1 record, they appeared poised to turn around their recent fortunes after outshooting the Islanders by a 14-6 margin on the strength of three power plays. The Coyotes capitalized when the Islanders had difficulty clearing the puck out of their own zone, finding the stick of former Rangers’ forward Anthony Duclair, who connected for his second goal of the season. The Islanders faced further duress when defenseman Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield earned penalties later in the period, but they were able to kill a five-on-three power play to build late momentum.
“They (the Coyotes) are a quick team,” Weight said. “They want to play fast and play the long way using half the rink. They did a good job getting out of their zone easily, and we have to have a little more pace to our forecheck and a little more structure in the neutral zone, which has been an issue for us. I think killing the five-on-three was a turning point. Teams that kill a five-on-three for a lengthy period is a big hit to the team that doesn’t score, and it proved to be a big part of the game.
After middling results in the first 20 minutes, the Islanders turned to Tavares to enliven their offense and utilize the budding chemistry between he and fellow linemates Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. Tavares tipped in an Eberle feed for the game-tying goal after the Isles opened the second period with six consecutive shots on goal.
His second goal of the game beat goaltender Louis Domingue in the crease and passed Bob Bourne for seventh place on the club’s all-time list. With the score tied following a Nick Cousins goal in the third period, Tavares redirected an Adam Pelech goal to complete his seventh career hat trick, joining Pat LaFontaine in fourth place in franchise history.
“It was an ugly turnover that led to a tie game, but it was nice to bounce back,” Tavares said. “We got rewarded off a nice play by Pelly and I don’t think I tipped or deflected one in last year, but I had three today, so it was nice to get them, and when they come in a win it’s much better. I think you have to realize that this is a tough league and you cannot take a team for granted since it’s so competitive. It just comes down to the way you respond.”
The influence of Tavares also proved evident in the play of his teammates, who responded when they shared the ice on his shift. With less than three minutes to play, Tavares recorded his fourth point, assisting on a Scott Mayfield one-timer. The insurance goal was the first by an Islanders’ defenseman this season, culminating a banner night for the captain in the team’s third consecutive victory and their fourth in their last five games.
“You see the way we play when he is on and tonight was a good example,” Mayfield said. “There were a few games where we all know how Johnny plays and perhaps it wasn’t what he wanted, but he’s come back and shown us what he can do.”
“We’re coming along,” Tavares said regarding the play of his line. “I think the pucks are creating some opportunities and we are getting rewarded a little bit more, and we just want to be able to continue those things.”
Tavares began the season in a search for his rhythm and endured a rough six-game stretch where he failed to record a point, but in his last two games, Tavares collected four goals and seven points to reclaim the team lead in scoring. Like Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, Tavares possesses the unique ability the elevate his team’s play and take over a game when the situation warrants, while making his teammates better in the process.
“I get excited when we can win a couple of games because I know how he gets when he bursts out and takes the team on his shoulders,” Weight said regarding Tavares. “I thought it was really refreshing. Now we have to take what we do well and do it more often.”