On Monday night the New York Islanders' comically bad penalty killing unit had perhaps its most important victory of the season when they were able to kill off an incredibly immature slashing penalty by Captain/Saviour John Tavares (and if we're being honest, the word slash is probably a little soft in describing Tavares' offense. nut-spear is more like it).
The Islanders had just battled back to tie the New Jersey Devils, erasing a 2-0 deficit along the way. Two days earlier the Islanders had an incredibly satisfying regulation win against the Chicago Blackhawks after losing three straight games. Had they lost to the Devils, it would have been three losses in their last four games; if they won it would be two comeback wins in a row.
The game looked destined for overtime when Tavares had his little fit. There were almost exactly two minutes left in the game when Marek Zidlicky lined up JT and connected on an awkward, but perfectly acceptable hit in open ice. Tavares went down and looked to take a second to assess the situation before acting. Then he acted.
Islander fans cringed as soon as they saw their captain misbehave. We knew what was coming next. The hockey media mongers all raced to be the first to post a vine or gif or whatever of Tavares' spear into the nuts of the New Jersey Devil rearguard, putting Tavares on the naughty list just a few days before Christmas.
John Tavares seems to be a very popular player among NHL fans. Canadians have been swooning over him since he was 14 years old. When I see Ranger fan
friends people at a bar they are often extra liberal with compliments for the talismanic Islander. I want to make him the best man at my wedding.
There's not much to dislike about the guy. His work-rate is impossibly good and his ability is immeasurable. A few years ago he committed to the then-down-and-out Islanders at an incredibly reasonable salary. Seriously, if he wants to be my best man my brother would understand.
Recently though Islander fans have begun to notice a minor chink in Tavares' armor. Nothing major, but definitely something worth noting. Tavares has developed a bit of a knack to toss a hissy fit here and there. Most of the time it is directed at the refs or because somebody just jump-tomahawked him on the back of the leg while breaking away, but other times it is a bit unwarranted and could lead to bad penalties -- or dreaded loss of owed karma.
In Tavares' defense, he absolutely has a target on his back every night. He's constantly being hit hard and high. Nobody is going to give up the opportunity to plaster one of the league's best players. Most of the time these hits are clean and worthy of NHL ice, but the occasional cheap shot has landed. This comes with the territory of being one of the league's best players.
This also shouldn't anything new to Tavares. He's been the best player in his age group his entire life, was a record-setter in junior, and is now a perennial Hart Trophy threat. Add Tavares' somewhat sluggish form to the natural frustration with being consistently battered by huge guys on ice 82+ nights a year, and what you have is a player that is on the verge of boiling over.
Tavares is absolutely not a dirty player and this incident doesn't change that. When (if?) the league reviews this incident they will take into consideration that JT has never done anything like this before and isn't a "dirty" player. And given the league's soft-spot for her stars, I'm not sure if Tavares would be suspended. Should he be? Well I know I'd be downright ornery if this happened the other way and their guy wasn't punished further.
The heat will now be turned up on JT for the next few weeks. His every extracurricular will be under the microscope as we watch how he learns from his mistake. He will learn that a cheap shot like that from a man like him will spiral out of control and lead to a week's worth of attention and media circus (the Canadiens and their media visit next week), usually culminating in rumors that Tavares wants to be traded to Toronto.
The Islanders' insanely good start to the season (21-10 -- feels like a trip) is even more crispy when you consider what some see as Tavares' dip in form this season. It has taken him some time to regain his conversation-worthy rhythm and that is not something to panic about at all. Long-term injuries like the one he suffered are not easy to bounce back from and it is visibly frustrating him -- it happens.
We all expect greatness from Tavares because he expects greatness. His actions against the Devils the other night betrayed those expectations, but that really isn't a big deal. However if he doesn't learn from this and keep it from becoming a reputation, well I'd just hate to see him get lumped in with some of the NHL's most notorious blood-and-thunder shows.
It is really awesome to have a superstar on the team that you love. It is that much better to have one that's universally loved.