Tavares insists there's no hard feelings about how Islanders fans treated him last season
The hate here last season when former Islanders captain John Tavares returned for the first time was visceral.
Fans burned his sweater in the parking lot before the game, someone threw a plastic snake at him in warm-up, fans directed derisive chants at him all night and they lustily booed his video tribute.
And yet Tavares insists all that doesn't really change the way he feels about this place.
"No, not really," he said in his usual matter-of-fact tone. "It's a really passionate fan base that loves their Islanders, so I just try and go out there and play. I think I've said a lot about the impact playing here made on my life and how much I enjoyed it so it is what it is ... I spent a lot of time here so there's still a lot of memories come back and see a lot of people that made a big impact on my life so a lot of that is still there."
Tavares is back on Long Island tonight for the third time since spurning the team that drafted him first overall in 2009 and heading home to sign a huge free agent contract.
"You know, that's dead and buried kind of thing," said coach Mike Babcock, "and he's been through it and so, the emotional side for him, I mean, he spent a long time here, probably knew a good restaurant to go to last night. It was easier for him that way, but in reality it's us versus them tonight."
That said, it's hard to believe the memories from that crazy night at the Coliseum on Feb. 28 have faded.
"Even for me, I was getting pretty wound up," right winger Kasperi Kapanen recalled, "and I was just screaming and yelling and trying to get myself into it, so I couldn't imagine what Johnny felt like. But that's what it is and he handled it really well, handled it like a pro ... that was a one-of-a-kind moment, for sure."
"He handles all that in stride," said left winger Zach Hyman, "that's the kind of person he is, he just goes about his business no matter what the circumstances are ... Playing in this building is awesome. Obviously, it's a little different when we come to town with John's history and what not, but it all makes it more exciting and it's one of those games that you look forward to playing in, so I'm happy I'm back for it ... I'll be curious to see how it is tonight."
Right now, with Mitch Marner out, the Leafs need Tavares to play like the guy who carried his lines to great success as an Islander. Tonight, he'll be flanked by Hyman, playing his first game since undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL, and Kapanen, who failed to score in seven games while skating on the left side with Tavares and Marner to start the year.
"Even though we didn't really score we still had some chances," noted Kapanen, "we had some good looks so now I'm on the right side it makes things easier and I feel more comfortable."
"I don't really know what to expect with Hyms," said Babcock. "I know he's going to work as hard as he possibly can, (but) he's been out for a long time so we'll monitor that. Kap is a speed, forecheck player and then John is at the net and shoots it and does his damage in the zone. They have to be a cycle line to be successful and they're aware of that."
Tavares has praised Hyman for the consistency of his effort and style of play.
"It's great for me," Tavares said, "a lot of good success last year and built some good chemistry so want to pick up from where we were and continue to get better."
But with Marner out, the feeling is bound to be different.
"It might change a little bit, the dynamic," Hyman admitted, "obviously Mitch and Kappy are different players, you know, it's my first game back, Johnny has been playing with a bunch (of players), our line hasn't really been together this whole year."
Tavares has struggled to gain traction at even strength this season, registering just two points – both goals – in five-on-five play. And tonight's opponent is the stingiest in the NHL as the Islanders allow just 2.16 goals per game. New York is also the hottest team in the NHL right now, riding an 11-0-1 run to second overall in points percentage (.781) behind only the Capitals.
"It's better to get kind of thrown into the fire and get going," said Hyman. "They're obviously a really good team. They've been on quite a run of late ... "They're one of the best teams stopping the rush so I think a lot of the game is going to be on the cycle and being heavy and I think we have to do a good job of that as a line."
Tavares called himself out after a sluggish start Sunday in Chicago and will be looking for a bounce-back effort.
"I know I take a lot of accountability (for) that being the role that I'm in," Toronto's captain said, "so just try to go out there and be as best prepared and make sure you're ready to go when puck drops."
Hyman may take some time to get going after such a long layoff, but his mere presence in the lineup should help lift the team.
"No one's going to work harder," said Babcock. "I mean, even in the penalty kill yesterday in practice, no one's going to work harder, try harder, be more prepared. It doesn't matter, hurt, healthy, whatever, sick, not, he's coming to play each and every day. You can never have too many of those guys, it's contagious."
What impact will Hyman make on Toronto's 23rd-ranked penalty kill?
"Huge impact," said Kapanen. "He does it really well, that's one of the best parts of his game. The PK hasn't been what we want it to be so we have to take a step in the right direction and I think Hymie's exactly what we need."
Tonight will be Hyman's first game since April 23 and it's been a long road back. He actually spent more than a minute this morning paying tribute to each member of the support team that helped him recover. It felt a bit like someone, who just won an Academy Award giving a speech.
"Rich Rotenberg is head of the sport science, he was unbelievable," Hyman started. "(Head athletic therapist) Paul Ayotte, (assistant athletic therapist) Jon Geller, strength coaches Louis (Rojas) and Mark (Cesari). I'm not going to forget anybody; I'm going to name the whole staff. (Massage therapist) Todd Bean, (assistant athletic therapist) Amit (Sindhwani), I spent the most time with him, he stays back, he's unbelievable. I'm hoping I don't forget anybody. Margaret (Hughes) the nutritionist. We have such an unbelievable staff and I really saw everybody so I really have to thank everybody who was in there and helped me get back there to where I am now and not just feel good body-wise, but mentally as well. I talked about (director, athlete wellbeing and performance (Dr.) Meg (Popovic) a little bit last week and she's been a huge help on that side as well. So many people to thank and just happy to be back and just very overwhelmed with excitement."
Morgan Rielly, who dealt with his own ACL injury as a junior player, offered advice as did former Leaf Frank Corrado, who tore his ACL in the AHL.
"It's excruciating pain after the surgery," Hyman recalled. "When you do the patella graft you're taking pieces of your bone and making a graft out of it so a couple days after, a week after you can't really do much, you're just lying around … now that seems like a long time ago."
Hyman also read up on other athletes who overcame the injury.
"I think I know the history of everybody who had an ACL injury," he said with a laugh. "(Adrian Peterson) came back; he was MVP (the first) year. I’m a big football fan so ACL is a common injury. Cooper Kupp came back and is having a great year, Jimmy Garoppolo ... I definitely looked at a bunch of different people who have gone through it and it's something you can come back from and come back stronger."
Babcock previously said he'd like the Leafs to have an established identity by the 20-game mark, but that hasn't really come into focus and Toronto plays its 20th game tonight.
"For us, this year, it's a little bit different in the fact we had so many changes and so we're still getting to know each other a little bit," Babcock explained. "We still haven't put our lines together yet."
"We have the tools and we just haven't really been executing," said Kapanen. "I think the amount of goals (allowed) and the amount of penalties we've been taking have been hurting us so that's something we're trying to be better at every day and work on in practice. But offensively and stuff like that we know we're up there with anybody so we just have to dial it."
The loss in Chicago on Sunday was another baffling one as the Leafs came out flat against a struggling Blackhawks team that had also played the night before.
"Obviously, we can't give up freebies," Babcock said. "Our last game on the road we did that and we left the net front a couple times, even on a penalty kill, which was no good. So we have to do a better job in that area, we're all aware of that and understand that."
Toronto ranks 20th in goals against per game (3.16).
"Our goals against, the way characterize it, we've given up more off the rush then we need to," Babcock said. "That's the big thing for us. So, is that turnovers? Is that losing F3? That's a big priority for us as we grow our game."
Despite everything, the Leafs still have a chance to hit Babcock's goal of gaining six points every five games.
"We're at the end of our four segments and we'd be set up perfect with 24 points," the coach pointed out. "That's exactly what we were looking for coming in and so we’re two away, we need this."
Projected Leafs lineup for tonight's game:
Johnsson - Matthews - Nylander
Hyman - Tavares - Kapanen
Mikheyev - Kerfoot - Moore
Petan - Shore - Gauthier
Rielly - Ceci
Muzzin - Barrie
Dermott - Holl