Leafs' Tavares braces for boos in return to face Isles

John Tavares will play the 733rd game of his NHL career in the same place he played his first game. The reaction will probably be a little different on Thursday than it was on Oct. 3, 2009, though.

One of the most anticipated games of the NHL regular season will finally take place Thursday, when Tavares makes his long-awaited return to Long Island as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs when his new team faces the New York Islanders in a key Eastern Conference matchup in Uniondale, N.Y.

The Maple Leafs will be completing a back-to-back set after beating the visiting Edmonton Oilers 6-2 on Wednesday night. The Islanders were off Wednesday after they began a five-game homestand Tuesday by falling to the Calgary Flames, 3-1.

A sellout crowd of just shy of 14,000 is expected to show up at the Nassau Coliseum and shower Tavares with a decidedly hostile greeting in his first game against the Islanders as a visitor since he signed a seven-year, $77 million deal with his hometown Maple Leafs on July 1.

Tavares was drafted first overall by New York in June 2009, made his NHL debut by scoring a goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins fewer than four months later and spent his first nine NHL seasons with the Islanders, including the final five as team captain.

Tavares was just the latest superstar free agent to change franchises in the salary-cap era, but his decision was especially jarring to Islanders fans who had become accustomed to his declarations he wanted to stay with his original team for his entire career.

"I think I've shown my commitment, my appreciation and my desire to play on Long Island," Tavares told Sportsnet Radio in Toronto during an interview in July 2016 in which he said he "would not count" on the idea of him joining the Maple Leafs as a free agent in the summer of 2018.

"I would love for that to continue for the long haul. I think that you look at some of the greatest players in the game (that) have been able to spend their entire careers somewhere. I hope I'm in that same position."

But the Islanders, who won their only playoff series of the century in the spring of 2016, missed the postseason the next two seasons, and even with the ability to offer Tavares longer and more lucrative contract, new general manager Lou Lamoriello could not keep Tavares from heading north.

Already embittered Islanders fans were further angered in the hours after the news became official when Tavares tweeted a picture of himself sleeping on Maple Leafs sheets accompanied by the words "Not everyday you can live a childhood dream."

Such sentiments furthered the conspiracy theory Tavares and his agents planned to have him sign with the Maple Leafs for years. Tavares told NHL.com Wednesday night that he "had no idea what I was going to do until I made my decision." But he also acknowledged to the league's official website earlier this week that he understands he won't receive a friendly greeting Thursday.

"I have a sense of what it might be like, and whatever it is, it will be," Tavares said Tuesday. "I'm just going out there (to) try to play and do what I have to do to help the Maple Leafs."

While Tavares' former teammates won't share the bloodlust of those in the stands, the Islanders can satisfy the appetites of their fans by getting the best revenge of all -- two desperately needed points.

The Islanders have surged into playoff contention without Tavares this season, but three losses in the past four games have erased their Metropolitan Division lead and left them tied with the Washington Capitals, who happen to visit the Coliseum on Friday night.

Islanders center Andres Lee, who replaced Tavares as captain, said playing against the Maple Leafs in Toronto earlier this season -- New York earned a 4-0 win on Dec. 29 -- should remove most of the awkwardness from the Thursday encounter and allow everyone in the home locker room to focus on the task of keeping pace in the playoff race.

"As players, it's already been there, done that and we've moved on a long time ago," Lee said following the loss to the Flames on Tuesday night. "We have a special group in here that's done a lot of things together. All that outside stuff is going to happen. For us, we just need the two points. We've got to bounce back and get back on track. Doesn't matter who is coming into our building."

--Field Level Media
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