Hart Race includes Tavares

In the final week of the regular season, John Tavares is hoping to get the Islanders into the playoffs. A win tonight and a Jets defeat would wrap it up for one of the league’s hottest teams. Before the lockout ended, not many thought they were ready to take that giant leap forward. At least I didn’t. 

Here are the gritty Islanders on the verge of something special. Their record in April shows that they have yet to lose in regulation. Entering tonight’s game at Carolina, the Islanders are 8-0-2 for the month. They have gained 18 of a possible 20 points to move up to sixth in the East. With a 24-16-5 record, the Isles have 53 points. Twenty of those victories have come either in regulation or overtime.  The Islanders are already 2-0-0 on a five-game road trip to conclude the shortened season. They continue to dominate away from Nassau Coliseum, owning a 14-5-2 record. Only the Blackhawks and Penguins boast better road records. 
Much of their turnaround can be attributed to their best player. In his fourth year, Tavares continues to improve leaps and bounds. The 22-year old former ’09 top overall pick leads the Islanders in goals (26), points (45), power play goals (9), power play points (16), game-winners (5) and shots-on-goal (153). His 26 markers rank third in the NHL trailing only Alex Ovechkin (30) and Steven Stamkos (28). Tavares’ five game-winners place him in a tie for third. In an important game the other night, he scored the shootout decider to edge Winnipeg 5-4. The Jets are in a do or die situation tonight against the Caps (see previous post).
Tavares is the leader of the Islanders. He centers one of the best lines in hockey. Anchoring Matt Moulson (15-27-42) and free agent coup Brad Boyes (9-25-34), to quote Reggie Jackson, he’s the straw that stirs the drink. He instantly makes his teammates better. In particular, the Islanders own one of the most dangerous power plays. Tied with Edmonton for sixth, they click at 20.8 percent. Tavares and Moulson have combined for 17 of the Isles’ 31 power play goals. Nearly half of Boyes’ assists (12 PPA) have come on the man-advantage. If they get in the postseason, the PP can be a big advantage. Special teams are essential. Conversely, The club must stay out of the box, placing 20th on the PK (80.2 percent). 
When looking at Tavares’ season compared to top Hart candidates Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin, it isn’t as clear cut. However, he also doesn’t play on as talented a roster. It’s JT91’s value that makes him a choice. The question is how will voters view him compared to Hawks’ duo Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Like Crosby and Ovechkin, Kane has the numbers. His 51 points (21-30-51) are tied with Ovechkin for fourth in scoring. The Great Eight’s resurgence has carried the Caps from the outside to in position to clinch the Southeast if they prevail over the Jets. Ovi paces the NHL with 30 goals and 16 PPG’s.  Toews is the leader of Chicago who boasts a plus-27 rating to go with 46 points (21-25-46) in 45 games. 
It’s awfully tough not to look at Crosby’s production and hand him MVP. He still paces everyone with 56 points (15-41-56) in only 36 contests. Sid The Kid also is plus-26, speaking to his dominance. In those 36, the Pens are 28-8-0, including 14 straight in March. Despite him out with a broken jaw, the Pens continue to win. They’ve won seven straight running away with the Eastern crown. Ironically, they are dominant when Norris candidate Kris Letang dresses. Pittsburgh has won their last 14 with Letang. Overall, they’re 26-6-0 with their top defenseman. That could boost his candidacy for the Norris. 
Part of the reason the Pens continue to win are the deadline pickups of Brenden Morrow (5-6-11 in 12 GP), Jarome Iginla (4-4-8 in 10 GP) and Jussi Jokinen (4-4-8 in 7 GP). Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero added to a deep roster that features Chris Kunitz, Pascal DupuisJames Neal, Brandon Sutter and Matt Cooke. Don’t forget last year’s Hart winner Evgeni Malkin, who has 29 points (8-21-29) in 28 games. The Pens are 20-8-0 when he plays.
When looking at the Pens and Hawks, it’s hard not to say that Crosby, Kane and Toews have more around them. The Caps boast three top 15 scorers. Following Ovechkin, Mike Ribeiro is tied for ninth with 47 points (13-34-47) and Nicklas Backstrom is tied for 13th with 46 (7-39-46) just ahead of Tavares. Only linemate Moulson ranks in the top 30 with 42. If you took away Tavares from the Islanders, they’d still be a lottery team. Even with rock Evgeni Nabokov and the improved play of the second line of Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo, they’re nowhere near the playoffs without their best. 
That’s why I would include Tavares in the top three over Kane and Toews. If he doesn’t make the cut, it’s no disrespect. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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