Thursday, November 10, 2011

Great Expectations

It's not easy to carry an entire franchise's hopes and dreams on your shoulders.

When John Tavares was drafted 1st overall by the New York Islanders in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, it marked the dawn of a new era for the organization. Thousands of fans anxiously awaited the arrival of the then-18-year-old forward, convinced that he would rescue the Islanders from years of futility and establish them as Stanley Cup contenders once again.

John Tavares poses after being drafted 1st overall by the Islanders (

In junior hockey, Tavares was a teenage legend. In 2006-07, he broke Wayne Gretzky's record for the most goals in the Ontario Hockey League for a single season, tallying 72 with the Oshawa Generals. By 2009, he had the most career goals (215) in OHL history.

Still, questions remained. How would Tavares' game translate to the NHL level? At 6-feet tall and 198 lbs. at the time, some critics wondered whether he'd be durable enough to last an entire 82-game season. Others bashed his skating speed, and felt that it could work against him while competing against the best players in the world.

On October 3rd, 2009, Tavares would get his first NHL test...taking on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Isles faced a formidable foe in Tavares' debut

There was a noticeable buzz in the Uniondale, New York air that day. It was opening night in the 2009-10 season, and Long Island's new prodigy was making his debut. A sellout crowd of 16,234 passed through the turnstiles at Nassau Coliseum, eager to watch Tavares and his Islander teammates.

The Islanders hit rock bottom during the previous season, stumbling to a 26-47-9 record..."good" for 61 points and the right to draft Tavares with the #1 pick. For a franchise that hadn't won a playoff series since 1993, its fan base was ready to latch onto any possible hope for the future.

A crowd of 16,234 at Nassau Coliseum for Tavares' debut

The Penguins, meanwhile, had entered a new golden age in their existence. Led by superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in 2008-09. With the nucleus still intact, the Pens seemed determined to become the NHL's next dynasty.

National Anthem on Opening Night

As I got comfortable in Section 329, a chant of "Let's Go Islanders!" echoed throughout the Coliseum when the two teams lined up for the opening faceoff. While there was a smattering of Penguins' fans in the building, the vast majority were dressed in blue-and-orange.

Those Islanders' fans cheered as Tavares, wearing uniform number 91 on his royal blue jersey, took his first NHL shift. It was rather uneventful -- no goals, no assists, no penalties -- but he didn't look out-of-place, either.

Tavares on his 1st NHL shift

Pittsburgh would get on the scoreboard first. With 11:10 remaining in the 1st period, Crosby slipped the puck past Islanders' goalie Dwayne Roloson and into the net. As the Penguins' star forward lifted his arms in delight, Islanders' fans booed in disgust at the early deficit.

Sidney Crosby scored first for the Penguins

New York would not wait long to answer, however. After penalties to the Penguins' Malkin and Jay McKee, the Islanders were set up with a two-man advantage. During the power play, defenseman Mark Streit beat Fleury for his 1st goal of the season.

The packed Nassau Coliseum erupted in cheers from Isles' fans. The goal horn blasted, and the chanting chorus from Nickelback's "Burn It to the Ground" played over the speakers as folks clapped along. With 7:20 left in the opening frame, the NHL's worst team from last year was tied with the league's best.

The underdog Islanders even things up

It was also a milestone marker for Tavares. The rookie was credited with an assist on the Streit goal, giving him the 1st of what fans hope would be many points in his Islanders' career.

The score remained 1-1 into the 2nd period. The Islanders were outshooting the Penguins, but Fleury patrolled his goal crease with skill and efficiency...stopping the home team's scoring opportunities, and limiting the rebound chances.

Marc-Andre Fleury was doing all he could to keep the game tied

Following a penalty to Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton, the Islanders' power play went back to work. It wouldn't take long to produce a result.

The Islanders' power play unit takes the ice

About 20 seconds after New York's man-advantage got underway, a glorious scoring opportunity presented itself. Right wing Trent Hunter fired a pass to left wing Matt Moulson in the slot, about 20 feet in front of the goal. The puck bounced around as Moulson and Penguins' defenseman Sergei Gonchar battled for possession.

Suddenly, the little black disc found its way onto the stick of Tavares. With no time to make an adjustment, Tavares lifted a backhand shot toward the net. Fleury stretched as far as he possibly could to his right, but was unable to make the save. The puck found a home in the 6-foot-by-4-foot net for Tavares' 1st NHL goal!

John Tavares scores the 1st NHL goal of his career

While Tavares and his teammates gathered in the corner to celebrate his milestone goal, the Nassau Coliseum crowd roared in approval. Fans were catching a possible glimpse of the future in the present, as the #1 overall draft pick had tallied 2 points in his 1st NHL game. Even more importantly, the Islanders took a 2-1 lead on the rookie's successful backhand shot.

A milestone goal for the 19-year-old rookie

That score would carry into the 3rd period, leaving the defending champs in shock. Despite a sizeable talent differential, the spunky Islanders had more goals and more shots-on-goal than their counterparts from Pittsburgh.

Tavares and Crosby on a 3rd period faceoff

The Penguins appeared ready to dominate the final 20 minutes of regulation, launching shot after shot toward Dwayne Roloson...but the 39-year-old goaltender was making the saves.

Dwayne Roloson was steady between the pipes for the Islanders

With 12:41 remaining, Pittsburgh recorded the equalizer. After an offensive zone faceoff, Eaton flung a shot from just inside the blue line toward Roloson. The puck deflected off an Islanders' defenseman's stick and eluded the goalie's outstretched pad, finding its way into the net.

The only people in the building who celebrated were those wearing black, gold, or baby blue. While Penguins' fans cheered their team's success, Islanders' fans throughout the arena slumped in their seats.

Crosby's faceoff win led to the Penguins' game-tying goal

The blue-and-orange-clad fans may have been discouraged, but the Islanders themselves were not.

Just 17 seconds after Pittsburgh scored the game-tying goal, New York untied it. Trent Hunter beat Fleury with a one-time wrist shot from the top of the right faceoff circle, giving the Islanders a 3-2 lead.

It didn't take long for the Isles to recapture the lead

Despite the hiccup, the Penguins continued their offensive assault on Roloson and the Islanders.

With 3:49 left in regulation, former Islander Ruslan Fedotenko tied the game at 3...finding the puck during a net mouth scramble and stuffing it into the goal. Once again, Pittsburgh fans broke the silence of a filled-to-capacity Nassau Coliseum.

Pens' fans pound the glass after Fedotenko scored

The final moments of the 3rd period ticked away and the game headed to overtime. During the extra frame, the Penguins outshot the Islanders 4-1, but the game remained tied at 3 as the two teams headed into the shootout.

Overtime on Long Island

As two Zamboni machines did a quick resurfacing of the ice, most of the fans stood and anxiously awaited the one-on-one competition between skater and goalie to determine the game's outcome.

Getting ready for the shootout

The shootout started with Isles' forward Jeff Tambellini ringing a wrist shot off the crossbar for no goal. As frozen rubber met steel, it made a loud, clanging sound that echoed throughout the Coliseum. Fans responded with a loud, exasperated "Ohhhhhh!!!"

Penguins' defenseman Kris Letang followed Tambellini's effort by snapping a shot past Roloson and into the net. The pressure was now on the Islanders' next shooter, John Tavares, to even things up.

Kris Letang scores the first goal of the shootout

When Tavares' name was announced, the crowd buzzed with excitement. Could the rookie -- already with a goal and assist in his debut -- leave another lasting mark?

The referee's whistle blew and Tavares skated into the offensive zone for his showdown with Fleury. The closer Tavares got to the net, the louder the volume inside Nassau Coliseum. With the puck on his forehand side, Tavares ripped a wrist shot toward the goal...but it missed wide.

Tavares' shootout attempt missed the net

Despair was beginning to spread throughout the arena as Penguins' center Sidney Crosby took the ice. The superstar -- with a goal and assist of his own on the night -- could seal a shootout win for Pittsburgh if he scored.

A cascade of boos were showered upon Crosby as he glided toward the net. The 22-year-old deftly handled the puck, keeping his head up and eye on the shooting target the entire time. As he closed to within 20 feet of Roloson, Crosby quickly flicked his wrists. Within the blink of an eye, the puck darted between the goalie's legs and into the back of the the Penguins a 4-3 victory.

Crosby finishes off the Islanders

A collective groan from the Nassau Coliseum faithful was followed by silence and a move toward the exits. As the Islanders slowly skated toward their locker room after a hard-fought defeat, the Pittsburgh players celebrated at center ice with fist bumps and embraces.

The Islanders nearly pulled off the upset

The disappointment from the loss was evident...but Islanders' fans were bolstered by a glimpse of hope from their budding star, John Tavares. With two points in his NHL debut, Tavares proved that the sudden jump from juniors to hockey's biggest stage was not overwhelming for him.

Now, as a 21-year-old, Tavares is tied for 7th in the NHL in goals scored this season...with eight in 12 games. Although the Isles have stumbled to a 4-6-2 start, Tavares has been a bright spot.

What will be Tavares' legacy? The Mississauga, Ontario native is under contract with the Islanders through the 2017-18 him a chance to lead the franchise through its latest rebuilding phase. Only time will tell if it ends up being a successful venture.

At least I was there when it all started.

This ticket contained a memorable debut

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