TORONTO – John Tavares and the New York Islanders have been road warriors this season and will have to continue that trend to end their NHL playoff drought.
Tavares had two goals and an assist Thursday as the Islanders began their season-ending five-game road trip by rallying for an important 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Islanders (23-16-5) remain seventh in the tight Eastern Conference standings but are just two points behind fifth-place Toronto (24-15-5). And they did so by coming back from an early 2-0 deficit to improve to 10-1-2 in their last 13 games.
“That’s where we want to go, we want to keep moving up … and take care of our own business,” Tavares said. “That’s the best way to handle the situation we’re in.
“We know when we play well we can really take advantage of our opportunity here and not just get in but keep playing.”
The Islanders have been an excellent road team, improving to 13-5-2 away from Uniondale, N.Y., as they chase their first Stanley Cup playoff berth since 2007. New York visits the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday and head coach Jack Capuano isn’t taking anything for granted.
“We’ve still got 12 periods of hockey left and on the road against some good quality teams,” he said.
But the 22-year-old Tavares, a native of nearby Mississauga, Ont., who played his junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals and London Knights, sent a season-high Air Canada Centre gathering of 19,676 home disappointed while continuing to strengthen his case for consideration as a Hart Trophy candidate.
Brad Boyes, with a goal and two assists, Matt Moulson and Frans Nielsen also scored for New York, which took the season series with Toronto 2-1.
Cody Franson, Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf scored for the Leafs, who were solidly outshot 38-21, the fourth straight game and 10th time in 13 contests that has happened. Phil Kessel, appearing in his 500th career NHL game, added three assists in Toronto’s second consecutive loss.
Even with a victory Toronto wouldn’t have cemented its first playoff berth since 2004, but the two points would’ve certainly been welcomed following a disappointing 5-1 road loss in Washington on Tuesday night.
Now the Leafs find themselves having dropped two straight heading into an important road game in Ottawa against a Senators team that’s sixth in the East and just one point behind.
Franson said Toronto’s woes aren’t the result of the club looking ahead to the post-season figuring it has a spot already locked up.
“We have to stop the bleeding here and get back to what made us successful,” he said. “But our lack of lack of success the last two games has nothing to do with thinking we’ve got a playoff spot.
“This is adversity. A lot of our mistakes are usually correctable, we just have to pay attention.”
Lupul said after going ahead, the Leafs became their own worst enemy.
“We were making awful, awful turnovers especially when we got up 2-0 in the first,” he said. “We were throwing the puck in the middle of the ice and giving them a chance to turn the momentum and have success.
“We’ve been a good team all year, we’re just steering away from some things in our system and (individually) we’re not out-competing or outplaying the guy across from us. We already talked, there’s going to be a lot of video (Friday) and we’ll get back to basics and we’ll fix it.”
The Islanders controlled an eventful first, outshooting Toronto 19-5 but needed a late surge to erase a 2-0 deficit. Moulson’s power-play goal, his 15th, at 15:03 tied it before Tavares, the first overall pick in 2009, gave New York its 3-2 lead at 17:24. Tavares fired a shot on a 2-on-1 break that Leafs goalie James Reimer got a piece of but couldn’t keep out for his 25th goal of the season.
Boyes had earlier converted Tavares’ smart centring pass for his ninth goal at 9:07 that cut Toronto’s lead to 2-1.
Lupul opened the scoring at 5:05, skating around Islanders defenceman Matt Carkner and putting a shot through goalie Evgeni Nabakov’s legs for his ninth of the season. It came after Toronto, which boasts the NHL’s third-ranked penalty-kill unit, successfully defended a two-man New York power play for 1:28 early in the period, with Reimer making a nice save off Moulson.
“We killed off a 5-on-3 that you’d think would give us momentum, it seemed to drain our hockey club and then we had two more (penalties) right after,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We were fortunate to score on our first two shots and we were on our way and then all of a sudden we stopped.
“We just don’t seem to want to direct any pucks towards the net when we have the opportunity. Everyone wants to be that stop-up guy and hit the late guy with the pretty play and we’re not putting enough effort into the simple game.”
Franson’s power-play goal at 6:41, his fourth this season, gave the Leafs a 2-0 advantage as they scored on their first two shots of the period.
The Islanders held a 15-5 edge in shots in the second and had the period’s lone goal. Tavares scored his second of the game and 26th overall at 14:40.
Nielsen made it 5-2 with his fifth goal at 10:22 of the third before Phaneuf rounded out the scoring late on the power play.
Carlyle said there’s a simple cure to the Leafs’ woes.
“We said when we started this process we weren’t going to stray away from the template we’ve created,” he said. “We have to revisit that … provide some video and some things to show them because they’re not seeing the same thing we’re seeing in some of the situations and that’s always the way it is with players.
“It seems at times we’re trying to do too much as individuals and it’s costing us.”
Notes: Toronto and Buffalo are tied for the NHL’s youngest roster with an average age of 26.9 years of age. … The Islanders came in sporting a 20-2-2 record when they score at least three goals but just 2-14-3 when scoring two or fewer times. … New York defenceman Andrew MacDonald entered Thursday’s action with a league-high 114 blocked shots.