John Tavares New York Islanders
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The New York Islanders are now within striking distance of John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings.

Justin Weiss

John Tavares may have bolted to Toronto this offseason, but the New York Islanders are getting the last laugh.

With a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday night, the Islanders are now just two points behind the Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference standings.

On Dec. 29, the Islanders defeated the Leafs, 4-0, behind a hat trick from second-year forward Mathew Barzal. In a highly anticipated showdown on Hockey Night in Canada, Robin Lehner made 31 saves as the Islanders cruised to a statement win.

“That sour taste, kind of that like-you-got-punched-in-the-gut kind of feeling,” Tavares told Dave McCarthy of about his emotions following the loss. “Hopefully we can learn from this and know we have to play a lot better than we did today.”

The Maple Leafs have dropped five of their last seven contests, after beginning the season with 20 wins in their first 28 games. Since Christmas, the Leafs have been struggling to stay afloat, as William Nylander, Nazem Kadri, and Patrick Marleau have all struggled to light the lamp.

Meanwhile, the Islanders are 8-2-0 in their last 10 contests, as they pull within three points of the Metro Division lead. The club is riding the acumen of Barry Trotz and the strong goaltending of Thomas Greiss and Lehner, despite preseason predictions that warned of the Islanders finishing at the bottom of the league.

The Islanders are accomplishing all this without their captain of nine seasons (five of which were spent as captain, the other four as a skater).

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Tavares, 28, was the first overall pick by the Islanders in 2009. He has scored 29 goals and added 21 assists in 45 games this season. He has 25 or more goals in eight of his ten seasons, including a career-high 38 in 2014-15. He was recently named to the 2019 NHL All-Star Game for the fifth time in his career.

Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million pact with the Maple Leafs on July 1. He joined a talented forward corps that already featured Auston Matthews (20-22—42 in 31 GP), Mitch Marner (18-41—59 in 45 GP) and Nylander (1-2—3 in 17 GP).

The Islanders have been able to overcome Tavares’ departure in part because of the strong play of Barzal.

Barzal, 21, was a first-round pick of the Islanders in 2015. He has scored 13 goals and added 30 assists in 45 games this season. He tallied 22 goals and 63 assists in 82 games in 2017-18, earning the Calder Trophy for his efforts.

The Islanders continue to mesh as a team, while the Maple Leafs have experienced some growing pains.

“We’re playing as a team, we’re playing for each other,” Lehner told the media. “… Everyone shows up. We work hard. We try to stick to the structure.”

Justin Weiss is a staff editor at Elite Sports New York, where he covers the New York Islanders and Brooklyn Cyclones. In 2016, he received a Quill Award for Freelance Journalism. He has written for the Long Island Herald, FanSided and YardBarker.