Tavares stakes claim for Hart

John Tavares stormed into Toronto on Thursday and showed why he's one of the league's best. John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports

TORONTO -- We interrupt the recent Alex Ovechkin Hart Trophy love-in to bring you Thursday night's PSA from the John Tavares fan club.

The New York Islanders' superstar alternate captain proved yet again on this night why he, too, deserves some late-season Hart buzz after putting on a show in his hometown in another big victory by his team.

The 22-year-old center put up two goals and an assist, and was all over the puck all night long, as his Islanders beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-3 in a big game for both clubs.

I'm not saying Tavares should definitely win the NHL's MVP award, but I do strongly feel he deserves to be in the conversation along with Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Where would the Isles be without his team-leading 45 points this year?

"You look at [it] as what you mean to your team," linemate Brad Boyes said after his team's huge victory. "Obviously some people put up big points at certain times, but what Johnny does for us is extremely valuable. If he goes, we go. Again tonight, he's so consistent. The guy wants it. That's something I've noticed playing with him. It's impressive at his age."

On a big stage Thursday night, Tavares was all-world in a clutch performance that lifted his team to just two points behind the fifth-place Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings.

"That's where we want to go," Tavares said. "We want to keep moving up and worry about our games and taking care of our own business. That's the best way to handle the situation we're in. We know if we can play well we can really take advantage of our situation here, and not just get in but keep climbing."

The Leafs? They wasted an early 2-0 lead, but truthfully speaking, they never deserved to be in this game. They scored on their two opening shots, but reality quickly set in as the Isles outshot the Leafs 19-5 in the opening frame and went to the dressing room up 3-2.

With the score 2-0 Toronto early, a pair of heavyweight fights on consecutive shifts changed the game, according to Tavares: Matt Carkner of the Islanders taking on Frazer McLaren of the Leafs and then New York's Eric Boulton going toe-to-toe in a violent bout with Toronto's Colton Orr.

"I really thought those two fights got us going, Carks and Boults sacrificed for us there and it kind of woke us up a bit," Tavares said.

Tavares then found Boyes with a superb pass across the crease to get the Isles on the board at 9:07. Linemate Matt Moulson tied the game at 15:03 before Tavares on a two-on-one break beat James Reimer to make it 3-2 with 2:36 to go in the opening period.

The hometown kid Tavares had set the tone for the night. Not to mention further back his Hart Trophy case.

"He'd probably be the leading scorer in the league if I put away half the chances he gave me this year," joked his linemate Moulson. "But he's been playing great, obviously -- he's a big leader in our room. He matures more and more each day. His determination to be the best is unmatched by a lot of people."

Tavares made it 4-2 with a backbreaking goal at 14:40 of the middle period, knifing into the slot untouched and beating a defenseless Reimer with a quick wrist shot.

Game over, folks.

This was a comeback victory that once again spoke volumes about the Islanders' growth as a team.

"I really like the way we've handled a lot of situations," said Tavares, whose team kicked off a five-game road trip to end the regular season. "A lot of ups and downs throughout the season. As the season has gone on we've gotten a lot better at handling them. When you experience them and you start to have success, that breeds confidence and the belief in our locker room."

The Leafs? The playoff-clinching party remains on hold, Toronto playing a third consecutive dud and perhaps beginning to worry its loyal fan base.

The Leafs were outshot 32-13 Monday at home by the Devils, but Reimer stole a 2-0 victory for them. They were brutal in Washington and the Capitals made them pay in a 5-1 defeat Tuesday night.

Thursday night was supposed to be the correction game for the Leafs, but they looked even worse than they did in the previous two games, outshot 38-21 by the Islanders.

"Obviously the things that we're doing to prepare our group hasn't had an effect for 60 minutes," Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said. "So that's basically what I told them. We're a better team than what we've displayed here."

The Leafs have now been outshot in nine consecutive games, and while they had won most of those games, this past week's performance suggests it's a trend that eventually can't be sustained for a team that wants to win in the playoffs.

"The last nine periods of hockey have been eerily similar," Carlyle said. "It's back to the drawing board. ... We're going to work, we're going to take on a workmanlike attitude, and we're going to go and meet this head on."

The Leafs next play at Ottawa on Saturday, their Ontario rivals pulling to within just one point of Toronto with a 3-1 win over Washington on Thursday night.

No one ever said it would be easy, Leafs fans.