If there is any opposing player familiar with the arena saga of the New York Islanders, it might be John Tavares.
Since joining the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tavares faced the Islanders three times at a slightly renovated Nassau Coliseum and heard boos each time he touched the puck.
Tavares likely will hear them again Sunday night when Toronto visits New York for the second game at the newly opened UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., adjacent to Belmont Park. But despite the hostility of his former fans, he is happy about the new building opening.
“I think it’s tremendous for the franchise and fan base,” Tavares said after Toronto’s morning skate on Saturday. “It’s something that has been hanging over them for a long time, probably decades. Not only is it a new building, it’s their building.”
Tavares made his debut with the Islanders in 2009 as that year’s top overall draft pick. In 2016, he helped the Islanders win their first postseason series since 1993 by scoring in double overtime in Brooklyn against the Florida Panthers — a year after the Islanders played their final game at Nassau Coliseum, only to return there on a split basis.
Then he signed with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency following the 2017-18 season after scoring 272 regular-season goals in 669 games for the Islanders.
While Tavares has spent three-plus seasons in his hometown, the Islanders had been laying the groundwork for their new arena after years of speculation, and they opened the building by losing 5-2 to the Calgary Flames on Saturday.
“We have a home now,” Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “We’ve talked about it leading up to it with what guys have gone through. Brooklyn, split seasons, closing out the Coliseum. … It’s special to be home.”
Although it was a special night for opening the new arena, it has been a frustrating week for the Islanders. Besides being outscored 24-6 in a five-game losing streak, the Islanders are playing without captain Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Ross Johnston and Anthony Beauvillier along with defensemen Adam Pelech and Andy Greene due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s an incredible building; the atmosphere was electric. Not the results we were looking for, but the fans showed up, they were excited.” New York’s Kyle Palmieri said after Brock Nelson scored twice in a game where the Islanders fell behind four minutes in.
Besides getting their first glance at the NHL’s newest building, the Maple Leafs hope to start a four-game trip by rebounding from a 2-0 loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday that halted a five-game Toronto winning streak.
“This game’s over with,” Toronto’s Mitch Marner said. “Can’t dwell on this too long, or else it’s going to go into tomorrow night’s game.”
Toronto will head to Long Island on an impressive 10-2 stretch since dropping four straight last month and has six one-goal wins, with three of those in overtime.
“We do have a tough road trip ahead,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “So this one here certainly gets everybody’s attention.”
Tavares leads the Maple Leafs with eight goals and 16 points.
–Field Level Media