By Michael McEnaney
Enough talk about real estate projects already – the Isles unveiled a much more intriguing “hockey-related” project in Uniondale this past weekend with no environmental impact study required.
The John Tavares era began at the Nassau Coliseum on Saturday and though the Islanders lost to the defending Cup champs from Pittsburgh, 4-3 in a shootout, the night truly belonged to “The Next Kid.”
Showing some nerves on his first couple of shifts (a few forced passes), the 19-year-old Tavares settled in quickly centering for Kyle Okposo (21) and Matt Moulson (25). The young line generated the best chances the team had offensively in the early going and coach Scott Gordon rewarded their tenacity with some power-play time later in the period.
A big open ice hit by Brendan Witt on former Islander Ruslan Fedotenko roused the ire of the Pens and presented the Isles with a first period two-man advantage as a result.
The aforementioned Kid Line went to work quickly as Tavares pushed a loose puck to Okposo behind the net and his feed to Mark Streit led to a slapper from the point that found it’s way through Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to knot the score at 1-1. The slightly more established “Sid the Kid” had given the Pens an early lead after sneaking behind the Isles’ defense for a breakaway tally a few minutes earlier.
Streit’s power-play marker gave Tavares his first NHL point and seemed to calm the number one pick down as his game gained steam from that point on.
Gordon was certainly pleased with his new center’s opening night effort saying, “For his first professional game, besides scoring the game-winner, I’m not sure we could have asked for much more.”
Just over seven minutes into the second period, Tavares put the Islanders in front and the beleaguered old barn on Hempstead Turnpike, packed with a sellout crowd, erupted. Picking up a loose puck just outside the crease on another power-play, Tavares backhanded it past the outstretched pad of Fleury for a moment he’ll remember for a lifetime. The post goal celebration almost lasted that long as the crowd serenaded the teenager with chants of JOHN TA-VAR-ES.
“It was awesome and for it to come in my first home game against that team, in front of my family, it was special for a lot of reasons,” he beamed after the game. The ear-to-ear grin on Tavares’ face was as bright as the light atop any lighthouse the Island has ever seen.
While the goal was not exactly of highlight reel caliber, Tavares showed the quick hands and opportunistic ability that had become his trademarks in the OHL.
Unfortunately, the Islanders would blow a pair of one-goal leads, the last one coming with just 3:49 to go in the third, and eventually blow the game in a shootout as Crosby sealed it with a nifty five-holer on Dwayne Roloson. For Gordon, amid the glow of Tavares’ debut, there were several breakdowns on defense he’ll have to address – namely the countless clearing attempts up the middle that the Pens spent all night intercepting and turning into scoring chances.
“In our first game, I think the thing to take away is that it was an exciting game and the guys competed hard,” was how Gordon chose to view the night during the post game press conference. In coaching parlance that translates to “we’ve got some things we need to work on.”
It was somehow fitting that on a night dominated by fans carrying “Approve the Lighthouse Project” signs coupled with several scoreboard videos hammering home the same message, a 19-year kids from Mississauga, Ontario directed the focus back where it belonged, away from the asphalt surrounding the Coliseum and back onto the ice inside it.
Trend Hunter scored the other Islander goal off a great feed in the slot from Josh Bailey.
Kyle Okposo was the team’s best player all night showing great confidence with the puck and a physical edge on every shift.
Mark Streit was also solid at both ends of the ice …as usual.
Dwayne Roloson made some big stops and couldn’t be faulted on any of the three goals scored on him in regulation, although he might want Kris Letang’s shootout try back.
The playing of the grossly overused Gary Glitter Rock & Roll Part II on Islander goals has finally been put to bed… along with the moronic “You Suck” serenade Islander fans would chant at the opposing team during the song. Hallelujah!
Tavares’ total ice time was a generous 22:05 and he finished with 2 points and an even rating. Mark Streit led all Islanders with 26:24 of TOI.
First scrap of the year – in a good second period go, Tim Jackman was decisioned by Michael Rupp.
Isles should send a tape of Witt’s hit on Fedotenko to Dion Phaneuf to illustrate to the big Flames’ defenseman how to cleanly execute an open ice hit. It was textbook.
Doug Weight did no dress as Gordon wanted to give his newly appointed caption a few days to recover from his pulled groin. The Isles could have used him as they were murdered on defensive zone faceoffs all night.
Blake Comeau was scratched as Gordon explained he was feeling, “a little under the weather” during the days preceding the game.
Up next for the Islanders – the Ottawa Senators in Ottawa on Thursday night.