UNIONDALE, N.Y. — You didn’t even have to be there to understand.
You could be sitting on Nazem Kadri’s couch, in the midst of a concussion recovery, and still feel the force of the animosity and anger released inside Nassau Coliseum. The night they chanted “We don’t need you!” at John Tavares — plus a bunch of other things that painted the air blue — was a touchstone moment in this topsy-turvy Toronto Maple Leafs season, and not for the right reasons.
For starters, the New York Islanders hammered Toronto, 6-1.
“I watched the whole thing,” said Kadri.
And so even those who didn’t experience the Feb. 28 maelstrom found themselves bracing for another round of chaos in Monday’s return from The Return, operating under the assumption this might be one of those times the sequel actually lives up to the original.
They destroyed old Tavares sweaters in the parking lot that night and made home ice feel like a true advantage, targeting Tavares with chants that hardly let up all game long. Despite beefed-up security, a rubber snake was thrown at the former Islanders captain during warmups along with a sweater as he exited the ice.
It was a scene.
“We won’t forget that,” said Kadri. “We understand that in that building there can be some animosity. It’s going to be pretty hostile so we’ve got to prepare for the first 10 minutes and make sure we come out ready to go.
“Hopefully it’s a better outing.”
The Leafs shouldn’t be short on motivation, needing at least one point to follow the Islanders lead and officially clinch a playoff spot.
They are also still searching for a high gear that’s been missing since the last trip through Uniondale. Toronto is 6-6-3 dating back to the beatdown from the Islanders, a meandering stretch that overlaps with the injury absences of defencemen Jake Gardiner and Travis Dermott.
Those had a measurable impact on performance, dropping the Leafs to 27th in inner slot shots against since March 1 after sitting 16th beforehand. They’ve also seen their odd-man rushes against go from 10th fewest to 17th in the same timeframe.
Not surprisingly, allowing more high-danger chances has resulted in more goals against and fewer wins.
They must stem the flow.
Dermott returned to the lineup on Saturday and will play against the Islanders. Kadri has been back since March 9. Frederik Andersen is also expected to start in goal Monday after Garret Sparks handled the back-to-back here on Feb. 28, which all adds up to a much better opportunity for the Leafs to deliver a strong performance in support of Tavares.
As ugly as the previous visit was all around, it’s not been an off-limits topic of conversation behind closed doors.
“I was giving it to him a little bit afterwards, just rubbing it in a little,” said Kadri.
Still, there’s no desire to see it repeated. The Leafs players played a central role in luring Tavares to Toronto in free agency on July 1 — general manager Kyle Dubas has said he believes it’s the No. 1 reason he came — and they didn’t rise up to match the emotion the last time in here.
“I felt bad for Johnny,” said Kadri. “He put so many good years in (with the Islanders). I know Johnny as a person and as a player, and I know he was trying his best throughout his entire career there.
“So it was a bit of a tough situation to watch.”
This time he’ll be an agitating participant.
The crowd should be fired up for the final Islanders home game of the regular season, not to mention the final guaranteed chance to unleash some fury towards Tavares until the fall. The Leafs, meanwhile, can interrupt New York’s push for home-ice advantage in Round 1 and force the Coliseum crowd to wait a little longer to see its first playoff game in the building since 2015.
Then there’s Tavares, already with a career-best 45 goals, sitting one point shy of a new personal best mark of 87.
“He has our support,” Kadri said of Tavares. “We love having him as a teammate and as a player. He’s done great things for us.”
On Monday night they can return the favour.