It was my first Islanders game since my Nana passed away in 2004. She was the one with the Islanders season tickets.
Even before she passed, Nana gave up on her tickets. The woman who taped every single game on VHS could no longer stomach the daily embarrassment in the late 1990s.
The doldrums continued for years, until the Islanders drafted John Tavares. As I moved to DC, I kept tabs on this new star. Still, there was so much losing. It felt like they were never going to win games again.
When my Uncle and his family visited DC in March 2013 and invited me to join for an Islanders/Caps game, I was not expecting to see the light.
1st time seeing him play in person but wow Tavares is good. #isles— Sean O'Leary (@stholeary) March 27, 2013
Hockey is unique because television doesn’t do it justice. Sure, hockey is incredible to watch on television. It simply doesn’t tell the full story. There is an almost imperceptible difference from a very good to a great hockey player that must be appreciated in the flesh.
I watched John Tavares play in person and it was obvious he was the best player on the ice.
In the same way the ballpark comes to a stop when Bryce Harper bats, every eye focuses on the puck when it’s on Tavares’ stick. It feels different when he has it – a goal is possible at any moment.
This feeling is amplified by the fact that the Islanders have not truly complimented him with other top scorers. Not only does it feel like Tavares is going to score, it feels like he has to score for the Islanders to win.
During the 2015 playoffs, the Caps wore down the Islanders after seven games. Every game at Verizon Center, I sat in the stands and patiently waited for the Tavares line to hit the ice. It was frustrating as hell, yet I loved it. The Islanders have never, in my lifetime, had anyone who came even close to John Tavares – sorry, Turgeon, but it’s true.
Islanders really, really, really need someone other than Tavares to make a goal happen.— Sean O'Leary (@stholeary) April 22, 2015
As the 2016 playoffs began, I can’t admit to optimism. This year’s team reminded me of last year’s, led by the best player in the league and lacking a second scoring line. The only solace was a last game loss that sent the Islanders to Miami instead of Pittsburgh.
While I may not have been optimistic two weeks ago, I am now dreaming of playoff victories, series-clinching goals and Stanley Cups. Why not? The Islanders have John Tavares, and the opponents do not.
The Panthers had no answer for Tavares over six games. Even though everyone in the building knew who was getting the puck, there was nothing they could do. That’s the mark of a true great, where the opposition cannot devise a strategy for stopping them.
While his play over the first five games was legendary, his performance in Game 6 was mythical. Yes, you know about the tying goal and the winning goal. But it was everything else that made that game so special.
Sports are defined by the indefinable. You can’t quantify leadership, or hard work, or attitude. You can only feel it. Game 6 was that defining moment for Tavares.
From the third period through the overtimes, there was a palpable buzz in the Barclays Center when Tavares came on the ice. It’s rare in hockey for a crowd to react – every single time – when a guy hits the ice. Even if you closed your eyes, you would be able to hear when Tavares was playing.
With about five minutes to go, and things looking incredibly bleak, I started to believe. For 23 years, I always assumed something bad would happen to the Islanders. On this night, I assumed something good would happen.
As overtime started, I knew the Islanders would win. I can’t explain it – I’m a lifelong Jets/Islanders fan conditioned to prepare for the worst. Inexplicably, I was waiting for the John Tavares to score the winning goal. Even more inexplicably, he did!
It’s not supposed to work that way in hockey. The overtime goal is supposed to be scored by some third-line winger on a fluke. Mark Messier didn’t score in Game 7 in 1994, it was Stephane Matteau.
As the Islanders won the series, I fully realized what John Tavares meant to the Islanders.
John Tavares playing with so much confidence. Islanders expect to win these games now.— Sean O'Leary (@stholeary) April 21, 2016
Some lead by screaming and yelling. Some lead by working hard than everyone else. Others lead by attitude, and that’s John Tavares. At every moment – on the ice and off – he excudes confidence, and it’s contagious.
In 2015, the Islanders played to survive in the playoffs. In 2016, the Islanders played to win. That slight difference in attitude has open a whole world of possibilities. Nana would be happy.
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