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Islanders star Tavares is keeping it all relative against Penguins

| Thursday, May 2, 2013, 11:27 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Brenden Morrow lays out the Islanders' John Tavares during the third period Wednesday, May 1, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.

John Tavares did not speak to his uncle John in the immediate aftermath of the New York Islanders' loss to the Penguins.

It sounds like it might not be a bad idea, though.

Tavares' first experience with the Stanley Cup playoffs did not go well.

During the regular season, he was the Islanders' leading scorer, with 28 goals and 19 assists and emerged as a candidate for the Hart Trophy.

At age 22 — four years after he was the top overall selection in the 2009 draft — Tavares is the face of the franchise with a six-year, $33 million contract.

But he was on the ice for 17 minutes against the Penguins without putting a shot on goal — a season low for one of the game's top players.

“Winning isn't easy,” he said. “It's going to hurt a little bit, but you have to battle through a lot of things.”

That's where uncle John's wisdom might help.

The other John Tavares — a math teacher in Mississauga, Ontario — is one of Canada's most successful and enduring athletes. He is the highest scorer in the history of the indoor National Lacrosse League, with 779 goals and 887 assists in 22 seasons, and he remains a vital member of the Buffalo Bandits at age 44.

“As a kid, I always wanted to play in the NHL,” the Islanders' Tavares said, “but the person I looked up to the most and wanted to be like was my uncle John.

“I learned a lot from him, how humble he is and how hard he works. It's a great inspiration for myself to see him playing at his age. I'm very lucky to have him.”

There was a time when the younger Tavares, who often served as the Bandits' ball boy, wanted to play hockey and lacrosse professionally. He was an elite lacrosse player as a teenager before he was forced to choose. Hockey became the clear winner.

Still, he hasn't strayed far from uncle John's guidance.

“He's not someone who wants to sit down and talk for half an hour. He's not a big rah-rah guy,” Tavares said. “He's pretty simple, nothing crazy. He helps make sure you focus on the right things.

“Sometimes you don't think things are going as well as you would like, but you are not far off and you just have to keep working and believing in yourself.”

The Islanders hope that will be the case Friday night at Consol Energy Center, when they drag a 1-0 deficit into Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Penguins.

Coach Jack Capuano has emphasized to his team that — for all of Tavares' strength and puck-handling skills — he can't do it alone.

“You can talk about John and how (aggressively) they played him, but the surrounding support when he is on the ice needs to be better for us to be better,” Capuano said.

Said Tavares: “We can't let it be easy for them. At times, we weren't as aggressive as we have been lately. We have to step up that part of the game, for sure.”

The Penguins are aware it's difficult to control a world-class player such as Tavares.

“Yeah, I was surprised (Tavares put no shots on goal),” Penguins defenseman Douglas Murray said.

Once wasn't enough, left wing Jussi Jokinen said.

“We need to do that same job all over (Friday),” he said. “Not give him any time, take all the space out of him and try not to let him play with the puck too much.”

In the other locker room, Capuano knows his players did too much puck-watching in Game 1, so he tried to ratchet up their enthusiasm Thursday at practice. Players hollered playfully at each other and enjoyed a spirited drill where two nets are placed side by side and two sets of players try to score as many times as possible.

“You have to enjoy this ride,” Capuano said. “There are going to be surges. There are going to be momentums, but you have to make sure the guys stay relaxed.”

And a phone call back to Mississauga wouldn't hurt, either.

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter@JDiPaola_Trib.

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