Islanders have been Tavares' team from day he was drafted
The New York Islanders have been John Tavares' team from the moment he was the No. 1 overall pick seven years ago.
After enduring four losing seasons in his first five, the captain has led the team to consecutive playoff appearances and gave the rabid fans the signature playoff victory they've been craving for 23 years.
Tavares says the Islanders aren't done yet.
"We want to keep this thing going," he said. "We got a special group and we believe we can do something special."
Tavares has already done something special in the first round of this year's playoffs.
In Game 6 of the first round against Florida, he swooped in and scored the tying goal with less than 54 seconds remaining and then got the winner at 10:41 of the second overtime to send the Islanders to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1993 - when they reached the conference finals.
"It's about leadership of your team," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "It's about your captain, it starts with him. Basically that's probably the main reason why we're moving on."
The Islanders will face Tampa Bay in the second round, with Game 1 on Wednesday night on the Lightning's home ice.
The Islanders suffered plenty of heartbreak between playoff successes, with seven first-round exits, beginning with a humiliating four-game sweep by the rival Rangers in 1994, and including Game 7 losses on the road to Toronto in 2002 and Washington last year.
"The fans have been dying for this, they've been through so much," said Tavares, a home-crowd favorite whose jersey greatly outnumbers all of his teammates' combined in the stands at games.
Although some of the faces are the same - led by Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen - these Islanders are a long ways from the team Tavares joined in 2009.
Back then, they were two seasons into a stretch of five straight years of missing the playoffs. The fans anticipated their future star's arrival as more than 10,000 were in attendance at Nassau Coliseum to watch the broadcast of the draft held in Toronto, and they all cheered when Tavares' name was announced by General Manager Garth Snow for the first overall pick.
The first few years saw more losing, but Tavares' promise was evident from the start. He's led the team in points in six of his seven seasons - finishing three behind Okposo in 2013-14 - and in goals three of the past four.
Through it all, the Toronto-area native has embraced being the star of a franchise longing to return to its glory days that brought four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s.
"I love being an Islander," he said. "To be drafted No. 1 is a great thing and a great honor. They obviously believed in me to be a part of turning things around and I take a lot of pride in being a part of that and want to prove that and get back to where the Islanders once were."
And while his numbers faltered some off his career highs of 38 goals and 86 points set last season, the mild-mannered Tavares has come through big when the Islanders needed him down the stretch. He has 12 goals and 11 assists in his past 16 games, including five goals and four assists in the first round.
"He's very humble in the way that he goes about his business on a daily basis, whether it's good days or bad days," Capuano said.
"There's a calmness to him, that he knows he has to lead by example. ... He's not one of those guys that's going to be rah-rah. When he plays the right way, it's contagious for our group. ... He's a great leader for our hockey club."
Defenseman Travis Hamonic added: "He's one of the best players in the league. ... Insert whatever words you want to, to describe him, that's what he is. He's an amazing player."
On the night Tavares was drafted, he talked about the Islanders' push for a new arena to replace the aging Coliseum. They didn't get that new building on Long Island, but already achieved an elusive milestone in their first season at Brooklyn's Barclays Center.
And Tavares wants more.
Follow Vin Cherwoo at www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP