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Can Former Islander John Tavares Continue To Shine In The Playoffs for Maple Leafs?

John Tavares had been going about his business with the Toronto Maple Leafs rather quietly, but consistently this season until blowing four goals past the Florida Panthers on March 25th. Scoring four times in a game isn’t exactly unique in the NHL, but it was the first time the 28-year-old center has managed the feat since being drafted first overall by the New York Islanders back in 2009.

What also made the headline writers sit up and take notice was the fact Tavares now has 45 goals on the season. This means he’s scored the most goals in Leafs’ history during his first full season with the team and he’s now just three back of Alexander Ovechkin for the league lead. The race for 50 is now on and it’s territory Tavares has never entered before with his previous career high being 38 goals in 2014/15. He now has six games remaining to place the puck in the net five more times.

Comparing Tavares to Ovechkin is a bit like apples and oranges though. The Maple Leafs’ pivot isn’t known for a lightning-quick one-time shot, his speed, or his physical play. He can’t match Ovi when it comes to on and off-ice exuberance either and he doesn’t really share the same bubbly personality traits the Russian winger radiates. But what he does exhibit is tremendous hand-eye coordination and determination.

Tavares has almost gone toe-to-toe with Ovechkin in the scoring department this season simply by being in the right place at the right time. The majority of Tavares’ goals come from within 10 feet of the crease where he plants himself and often picks up his teammates’ rebounds. Think of him as a latter day Phil Esposito or perhaps a smaller version of Dave Andreychuk.

When Tavares was lured to Toronto as a free agent last summer it didn’t require much of a selling job on the Leafs part. They dangled a $77 million contract in front of him over seven years and that was basically all that was needed. For Tavares, who was born in nearby Mississauga, it was a chance to play in his hometown and skate for the team he supported as a child.

The Leafs realized they were getting one of the NHL’s premier players, but little did they know he’d be leading the league in even-strength goals with 36 entering the last week of the season. Tavares has always been a scorer though. After all, he posted 215 goals in 247 outings during his junior career in the Ontario Hockey League. In fact it may surprise many to learn he ranks third overall in goals since his NHL debut in 2009 with 317. The only players to score more during that span have been Steven Stamkos and Ovechkin.

Tavares established himself as the best player and team captain with the Islanders, but it could be argued he didn’t make those around him better players. In his nine seasons on the island the team made the playoffs just three times and he appeared in only 24 postseason games. He still did his job by scoring 11 goals and 11 assists in those two dozen contests, but the Islanders won a grand total of one playoff series with Tavares.

With the Leafs, Tavares has primarily been playing with 21-year-old right winger Mitch Marner, who has 25 goals and 65 assists this year. Marner totalled 61 and 69 points in his first two seasons and is on pace for 97 this year. He’s definitely enjoying a breakout campaign and how much of it can be attributed to playing with Tavares? The two definitely display on-ice chemistry and have lifted each other to new career highs.

But to say Tavares didn’t make his wingers better players with the Islanders isn’t exactly true. Just ask the likes of Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, P.A. Parenteau, Frans Nielsen, Anders Lee, Thomas Vanek and Josh Bailey among others. Most of these players enjoyed the best years of their careers while flanking Tavares. It’s understandable why a motivated Tavares is playing the best hockey of his career right now. He’s skating in his hometown, wants to prove he’s worth the $11 million a year salary and is gelling with Marner.

But it’s not going to mean much if he doesn’t produce in the playoffs. The Leafs will be facing off against the Boston Bruins in two week’s time and have been eliminated in seven games the last two times the clubs have met, despite holding leads in the two deciding games in Boston. Sure, it will look good on his resume if Tavares can become the first Leaf to score 50 goals since Dave Andreychuk pulled it off in 1993/94. In fact, he’d also become the first ever Leafs’ center to reach the magical mark.

The only number 50 that should matter to Leafs’ fans this season though is the 52 years it’s been since the club last won the Stanley Cup or even made it to the Final. If Tavares can somehow help the team end either drought, he’ll be considered the greatest free agent signing in franchise history.

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