In the New York Islanders' 4-1 Game 1 victory over Washington Wednesday, superstar center and Hart Trophy candidate John Tavares had just one assist. That could be interpreted by some as an ominous harbinger of what's to come for them against the Capitals and throughout the rest of the post-season. But the opposite is true. The fact the Isles got big games from youngsters such as sophomore centers Brock Nelson (who had the first and last goal of the night) and Ryan Strome, and veteran wingers Josh Bailey (one goal and two points) and Kyle Okposo (one assist) means there's less pressure on Tavares to shoulder the entire load. And that can only be good news for their playoff hopes this year.
Through Tavares' first five seasons as a member of the Islanders, he was more or less a one-man band. Sure, he had players around him with promise – Okposo and Bailey had both been with the team for a season before Tavares was drafted first overall in 2009 – but his young teammates didn't have his upper-tier abilities. They still can't do what he does. Few players on any team can. But they have developed, and GM Garth Snow has kept them together long enough for them to get to this moment.
Because of that organizational patience, the Isles now have in Bailey and Okposo a pair of seven-year NHL veterans who are still just 25 and 27 respectively. Now add to that the 21-year-old Strome (who scored the game-winner on a gorgeous wrist shot); 24-year-old left winger Anders Lee (who scored 25 goals this season and registered his first career playoff point Wednesday with an assist on Nelson's second goal); and the 24-year-old Tavares, and you have a group capable of staying together for quite some time and getting even better.
That said, the Islanders are going to have to fork over some big money over the next few years to keep that core intact. Tavares and Bailey are signed for three more seasons, but both eventually will get raises (and Tavares' will be significant) on their current salaries. Okposo (UFA) and Strome (RFA) will require contract extensions in the summer of 2016. Nelson (RFA) and Lee (RFA) need new deals this coming off-season. Snow won't likely be able to convince all of them to take hometown discounts, meaning ownership will need to re-invest some of their money after making the move to Brooklyn next year.
But if the team can keep this core together, there is a chance it can do something special. In Game 1, the Isles made the Capitals look slow and sloppy. Washington focused their energies on containing Tavares and did a decent job, but the other Islanders were relentless in their attack and showed excellent discipline, taking just two minor penalties and not allowing the Caps' top-ranked power play to be a factor. And their defense – which was without key component Travis Hamonic – kept stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom off the scoresheet and held Washington to a single goal. That says a lot about this team and what it can do, with or without Tavares dominating on offense.
There's still time for the Capitals to get back into the series, of course. Ovechkin always is a threat to score, and Holtby could at any moment reel off a couple of shutouts. But if neither of those things happen, Washington needs youngsters such as Evgeny Kuznetsov (who had only two shots on net Wednesday) and John Carlson (one shot) to step up and deliver at key moments.
If they can't, and the Islanders can continue to receive contributions from young players other than their captain, this series could be over sooner than anyone believed. Because the less pressure that Tavares feels to carry the team on his back, the more likely he'll do exactly that. And a New York Islanders team with Tavares, Okposo, Bailey, Nelson and Lee firing on all pistons ought to scare the living daylights out of the rest of the Eastern Conference.
They might not win the Stanley Cup this year, but the more we see from the cast surrounding Tavares, the less outlandish it sounds to picture the Islanders celebrating their fifth championship in franchise history.