|Tavares on familiar ice as Leafs visit Isles|
John Tavares' third visit to Long Island as an opposing player Wednesday night should carry with it a sense of normalcy -- one nobody could have imagined in July 2018, when Tavares left the New York Islanders to join the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tavares will make another trip to his old haunts when his Maple Leafs face the Islanders in a battle of Eastern Conference contenders in Uniondale, N.Y.
The Maple Leafs haven't played since Sunday, when they fell to the host Chicago Blackhawks, 5-4. The Islanders continued surging Saturday with a 2-1 win over the visiting Florida Panthers.
Both teams entered Tuesday in second place in their respective divisions and in solid position to once again reach the playoffs. That the Maple Leafs are primed to compete for a Stanley Cup is no surprise. Signing Tavares, who was born and raised in the Toronto area, was viewed as the final piece to building the Cup contender Canada's largest city has been craving since the franchise's last championship in 1967.
But Tavares' exit was supposed to cripple the already woebegone and vagabond Islanders, who missed the playoffs by 17 points in his final season with the team and were facing the prospect of splitting home games between Brooklyn's Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum while waiting for a new arena to be built on the Nassau/Queens border.
Instead, under the new management team of general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, the now defensive-minded Islanders earned 48 wins and recorded 103 points -- their highest totals in each category since the 1983-84 season -- and reached the second round of the playoffs for only the second time in 25 years.
One of those regular-season wins and two of those points were earned Feb. 28, when Tavares returned to the Coliseum and was booed every time he hit the ice in the Islanders' 6-1 victory.
The Islanders haven't missed a beat this season and will carry a 12-game point streak (11-0-1) into Wednesday night's game. New York allowed the fewest goals in the NHL last year and has given up just 35 goals this year, eight fewer than the next stingiest team entering Tuesday.
"Just the commitment level, it's high everywhere," Islanders right winger Jordan Eberle said following Saturday's win. "Blocking shots, holding pucks in the corners for 15, 20 seconds. That's the commitment level we have as a team and that's how we won last year and that's how we're winning this year."
The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, have allowed the fifth-most goals in the league (62 entering Tuesday). Toronto has given up at least four goals eight times in 19 games and surrendered four goals in the first period of Sunday's loss.
Afterward, Tavares, who was named the Leafs' captain prior to this season after serving as the Islanders' captain for his final five seasons with the club, took the blame for the poor first period.
"We played well in the third, but we can't play like we did at the start," Tavares told reporters. "And that starts with me."
--Field Level Media