The plane ride home from Pittsburgh following the Islanders’ disheartening 4-0 loss to the Penguins Thursday night promised to be a somber one.
When John Tavares was summoned to the front of the plane by the team’s coaching staff, he figured it would be a discussion of Game 5 and how best to approach the series moving forward.
Instead, assistant coach Doug Weight started in on Tavares about his evolution as a player since breaking into the NHL at the age of 19 after being taken first overall in the 2009 draft. Then his former teammate and landlord (Tavares lived with the Weight family his rookie year) finally got to the point.
He congratulated Tavares on being named one of three Hart Memorial Trophy finalists, awarded each year to the “player judged most valuable to his team.”
“It was special to hear it from him,” Tavares said in a phone interview with ESPNNewYork.com.
Tavares said that night was full of mixed feelings. The 22-year-old was obviously “honored” about the recognition; he joins Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin as finalists, though Tavares was still smarting from the blanking suffered hours earlier at Consol Energy Center, a loss that leaves the Islanders trailing the Penguins 3-2 in the series.
That fierce competitiveness and persistent desire to win is what put Tavares in the running for the award in the first place. With an outstanding 2013 season, in which he led the Isles with 47 points and finished third in the NHL with 28 goals, Tavares put the team on his back at times throughout its determined march to the playoffs. Without the former first overall pick, it’s hard to imagine that the Islanders would have made their first postseason appearance since 2007.
“I think I’ve come a long way,” Tavares said of his game’s progression since his rookie season in 2009-10. “But I still feel like I’ve got so much more to improve. That’s what excites me most from this season. I’m always looking to improve.”
The first-time finalist has been something of a patron saint for Islanders fans this season. With the team’s surprising run to the playoffs -- not to mention the way they have pushed the top-seeded Penguins with a series as competitive as it is entertaining -- the Isles have recaptured the excitement of playoff hockey on Long Island and restored credibility to a franchise that has often been the subject of ridicule in recent years.
“Obviously, there is a perception around the league about playing for the Islanders, this organization. Since Day 1 when I got here, not only did they give me every opportunity, but I saw what the goals were and the plan was moving forward,” Tavares said. “Once you finally experience it, and gain that momentum like we did, you can just see the hunger and the focus. It got amplified. ... There’s definitely a lot of growth and I think it changes what people may believe or think about the Islanders.”
Tavares has never wavered in his belief in this team. He inked a six-year, $33 million deal in September 2011, bucking speculation that he’d leave for greener pastures once the opportunity presented itself. Instead, he pledged his commitment to the Isles and vowed to try to bring home a Stanley Cup.
It has taken almost two years since then to take the next step, but Tavares is still trying to make good on that pledge. Five games into the team's first-round series, Tavares is struck by just how special playoff hockey can be.
“It’s everything you dream of and probably more,” he said. “The intensity, the focus and everything you have to commit mentally, physically, what you sacrifice to give to the postseason, it’s something special. It feels like nothing else.”