UNIONDALE, N.Y. — One of the numerous chants that New York Islanders fans directed toward John Tavares Thursday night was “We don’t need you,” a reference to the team’s success this season after their former captain left for the Toronto Maple Leafs via free agency last summer.
For yet another night in the 2018-19 NHL season the Islanders didn’t need Tavares and a collective effort resulted in a 6-1 win, helping them regain sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division over Friday’s opponent — the Washington Capitals.
You could argue it may have been their most comprehensive victory of the season.
“Yeah, it’s up there,” said captain Anders Lee, whose second period goal stood as the game winner. “We played pretty close [to it] for a full 60 [minutes]. I don’t know if we could get much better than that.”
Islanders fans had waited for this game since Tavares signed his seven-year, $77M contract with the Maple Leafs on July 1. The jilted feelings had built up since and the fans’ anger was on display inside and outside Nassau Coliseum.
There were plenty of Tavares Islanders jerseys that were switched up to either “91 TRAITOR” or “91 GORING,” thanks to some tape and a Sharpie, and there were some jerseys that were set ablaze, run over my passing cars in the parking lot, and a large amount of chants disparaging their former franchise player.
Inside the arena, Tavares was soundly booed every time he stepped on the Coliseum ice or touched the puck. No one in the rink could hear the sound from the tribute video played in his honor during a first-period television timeout. Even as he clapped in appreciation of the crowd and pointed toward the Islanders bench as his ex-teammates tapped their sticks to salute him, the noise was deafening.
Even with emotion in the building and the Islanders understanding that besides Tavares’ return, there were two big points on the line, they didn’t allow themselves to be caught up in the hoopla. The experience in their dressing room didn’t allow for that to be an issue at any point during the game.
“It definitely helps a lot,” said Casey Cizikas, who continued his career season by scoring his 18th goal. “We’ve got guys that’ve won Cups. We’ve guys that have gone the distance and when they speak, you listen. As a group, it’s definitely big and it goes a long way for us.”
When Tavares left in July, the Islanders were immediately written off. No could have imagined through 63 games they would be first in their division. Even with a new head coach in Barry Trotz and a new general manager in Lou Lamoriello, improvement was expected, but not this quick.
It’s been a group effort to earn the success they have this season. Eight players have reached double digits in goals, 12 players have at least 20 points, and their goaltenders have combined for a .937 even-strength save percentage.
“We’ve talked about it all week in terms of just getting back to what we do best,” said Trotz afterward. “We come at you with the four lines. We stay on you and be on the right side of pucks and make good decisions, have structure when we need it, desperation when we need it, commitment when we need it.”
Thursday’s emphatic win against their former captain and a team they may see in April during the Stanley Cup Playoffs was another measuring stick game for the Islanders. They’ve continually answered the questions and doubts, and once again showed why their place in the Eastern Conference standings is deserved.
We don’t need you, the fans chanted. And the Islanders showed them why.