Maple Leafs’ Tavares to face Islanders for first time
TORONTO -- John Tavares used to be a mainstay of the New York Islanders, eventually becoming their captain.
The 28-year-old center, however, will be on the opposing team for the first time in his career Saturday night when the Islanders visit the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Scotiabank Arena.
“I assume it will be strange for sure at some level,” said Tavares, who signed as a free agent with the Maple Leafs during the offseason. “It’s really hard to say because I’ve never done it before.”
Tavares had a strong warmup for the reunion with his former team, scoring two goals Friday night when the Maple Leafs defeated the Blue Jackets 4-2 in Columbus.
The Islanders also are coming off a win, overcoming 2-0 and 3-1 deficits at home to defeat the Ottawa Senators 6-3 on Friday.
Tavares had 272 goals and 349 assists in 669 games with the Islanders and was their captain from 2013-18.
In 38 games with Toronto, he has 26 goals, and is on a pace that would surpass his career-best 38 goals, set in 2014-15.
“He’s got a stick like a crowbar,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s heavy, heavy on it. He’s got elite hockey sense.”
“He’s getting to the net, he’s making plays,” said Maple Leafs right winger Mitch Marner, who assisted on both goals by Tavares Friday and scored one himself. “I think everyone knew when he came here how good of a one-on-one player he was. I think when he gets it, it’s just for me to try to find the open space and let him go to work on the people he’s going to work on.”
It figures to be an emotional night in Toronto Saturday.
“You’re in one place so long and you give so much to one place,” Tavares said. “I’m sure there will be many emotions. At the same time, I have to approach it the best way I can, just like any other game. I have to do my best to help my team win and try to play my best and be as best prepared as I can.”
Tavares, who grew up in the Toronto area, has been an important addition to the Maples Leafs, who have matured into Stanley Cup contenders.
“Johnny meant so much to this organization and to us in the room, his friends and teammates,” Islanders left winger Anders Lee, now the team captain, told Newsday. “I think we’re all looking forward to playing the game and seeing him.”
Mathew Barzal had two goals and an assist on Friday for the Islanders, who have won five of their past six games. The Maple Leafs have won five in a row.
“I know he has a lot of good friends in our room,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “They do have a little bit of hurt. They understand it. But they’d like to have him as a teammate and he decided he didn’t need them as teammates anymore.”
The return theme works both ways. Former Maple Leafs, left winger Matt Martin and right winger Leo Komarov, both signed with the Islanders in the offseason, and former Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello will be returning to their former home rink in Toronto.
Lamoriello became Islanders president of hockey operations after Tavares signed with Toronto.
Maple Leafs backup goaltender Garret Sparks got the start in Columbus Friday, which will set up No. 1 Frederik Andersen for the start on Friday.
Islanders goaltender Robin Lehnert stopped all 10 shots he faced after he took over in the second period from Thomas Greiss, who allowed three goals on 17 shots.
The Maple Leafs and Islanders were both playing their first game since Sunday.
Islanders right wingers Jordan Eberle (stiffness) and Cal Clutterbuck (lower body) did not play Friday.