Maple Leafs’ loss to Islanders a ‘punch-in-the-gut’ for John Tavares

Mathew Barzal earned his second career hat trick to lead the Islanders to a 4-0 win over the Maple Leafs Saturday.

TORONTO – You don’t really know how it feels until you live it.

Toronto Maple Leafs leading goal-scorer John Tavares expected a cocktail of emotions when facing the New York Islanders for the first time. A buzz of history and memories and kinship, though he couldn’t quite find the words for all the “different feelings” he anticipated.

“I don’t want to say uneasiness because that’s the wrong word, but I think probably some uncertainty because you haven’t been through it before,” Tavares tried explaining as the anticipation mounted. “I’ve gone through a lot of things in my career up to this point; you have a good sense of what comes at you and been through it or how to handle it.

“But, obviously, this is a new experience.”

It’s a shame, then, that his talented new teammates chose this evening to submit a rather flat performance, a 4-0 loss that brought the Leafs’ five-game tear of wins to a screeching halt at the feet of the better club.

The Islanders clogged the neutral zone and stuffed the Leafs to the outside, and it was their newly christened top centre who was the best player on the ice.

The Leafs’ — and, by extension, Tavares’s — worst loss in seven weeks was supplied by oh so many familiar faces.

“Even just in warm-up. You play against all the teams in the league, and you get a good sense of looking at the jersey and your opponent, and obviously I never looked at the Islanders jersey that way before. That was different,” Tavares said post-game.

Then he found the perfect hyphenated phrase to capture his disappointment after firing a game-high nine shot attempts, going 15-4 in the face-off circle and coming up empty.

“That like-you-got-punched-in-the-gut kind of feeling,” Tavares said. “It’s going to leave a sour taste.”

The $77-million man had smiled during his pre-game interview on Hockey Night in Canada when he admitted that, yes, he did put “a little bit” of money on the board.

That pile will collect dust for two months, until J.T.’s return to L.I.
 
“Everyone wanted to help John win today, but we obviously didn’t do a good enough job right through the coaching staff, right through the players. Any way you look at it, we didn’t play hard enough,” Babcock said.
 
“I would have liked to sit around tomorrow on an off-day and enjoy what we’re doing, but this way I won’t be very relaxed.”

Ironically, it was Valtteri Filppula — the UFA centre the Isles signed with a portion of all that unused Tavares dough — who opened the scoring by splitting Toronto’s third pairing of Travis Dermott and Igor Ozhiganov and whipping a wrister through Garret Sparks, playing both ends of a back-to-back after Frederik Andersen was sidelined with a minor groin injury.

Then, early in the second, Mathew Barzal — Tavares’s 21-year-old successor as the Island’s No. 1 pivot — cut to Sparks’ blue paint and doubled the visitors’ lead with a Tavaresesque tip of a Johnny Boychuk point shot.

Barzal struck again on a power-play slapper that deflected off Nikita Zaitsev, and once more on a wrister that dribbled between Sparks’ legs, giving the dynamic sophomore a natural hat trick and five goals over his past three periods.

“I love when he’s thinking ‘score’ rather than ‘let’s make a pass,’” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said of Barzal, who entered the game with three assists for every goal he’d scored.

In effort and execution, the Islanders made evident that the Leafs’ room might not be only one with a stack on the line for the boys, and reminded everyone of their dogfight with Pittsburgh for a Metropolitan playoff seed — something that eluded Tavares in his final two years with the club and no doubt prompted a call to U-Haul.

“I know he’s got a lot of good friends in our room, but I think at the same time they have to have a little bit of hurt that he decided to [leave]. They understand it, but they would like to have him as a teammate, and he decided that he didn’t need them as teammates anymore,” Trotz said Friday night.

A couple hours pre-game, Trotz applauded Tavares’s legacy, saying the superstar had surely earned the right to dictate his own future on Canada Day.

“He’s going to go down as one of the great Islanders of all time. He’s got a lot of friends in the dressing room, but tonight he’s not a friend. He’s not an Islander anymore,” added Trotz, able to play good cop and bad cop all by himself. “This isn’t a farewell tour or anything like that.”

Tavares, who naturally maintains close relationships with several members of his former organization, heard Trotz’s comments.

“He’s gonna coach the team there to do what he has to do to obviously get them prepared and ready to play and motivated,” Tavares said. “I’m just going to worry about what I have to do and what I can control.”

Morgan Rielly said Tavares kept to himself in the hours leading to puck drop.
 
“He was very focused before the game, but he always is. Calm, but he always is. He was not trying to make it a big deal, which is no surprise about his personality,” Rielly said. “Hopefully we’ll have a chance at redemption.”
 
The Leafs will visit the deafening ghosts of Nassau Coliseum on Feb. 28.

During his tenure in New York, Tavares popped 272 goals, set up 349 more and, in 2016, carried his mates on his back in exalting double-overtime for the only playoff series victory in his nine years of service. Saturday, his thoughts wandered back to the post-season, that ’09 spring night New York drafted him first overall, and the day a C was stitched on his sweater.

But once Tavares made his choice, one that inadvertently doused lighter fluid on a bonfire of his old replica sweaters and triggered 77 million mean tweets, his focused shifted forward and steadied.

One Isles fan pressed a sign to the front-row glass in the Leafs’ zone Saturday that read: “J.T., You Suck.” Another young man in a black alternate N.Y. sweater flashed a placard that bluntly questioned the new Leaf’s loyalty.

Let’s just say, Isles Nation has not quite reached the “acceptance” phase of this loss.

“He doesn’t care what other people think, except for the five people that sit at his kitchen table. He just does what’s right every day,” Leafs’ coach Mike Babcock said.

“He had a gut-wrenching decision to make, chose to come home to where he’s from and live here in Toronto. The greatest thing about John is that he’s a man, he’s real comfortable with his decision and the way it’s gone for him. He’d be cheering for the Islanders every night except for when they’re playing us.”

The way it’s gone is at blinding speed, with a wingman in Mitch Marner that doubles as a magician. Winning face-offs and thriving at the defensive end, Tavares is targeting his first 50-goal, 90-point campaign.

He controlled his own exodus to a contender, even if Toronto barely resembled one in his first game against his former squad.

“I loved my time as an Islander, and now I love being a Maple Leaf,” Tavares said. “I love to win every game, no matter who it’s against.”
 
But some losses hit the gut harder than others.

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