UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- For the hottest NHL player in the month of January, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin garnered much publicity -- and rightfully so -- for his 12 goal, 16 point performance in the opening 31 days of the new year that saw his team rip off an eight-game winning streak.
But flying under the radar into the NHL's top star for the month was New York Islanders forward John Tavares with nine goals and 22 points, which included six multi-point nights.
The 21-year old Tavares, now in his third season, is having his best year yet with 22 goals and 54 points through 55 games. His development into a top scorer in the NHL comes just months after signing a six-year, $33 million extension in September. His season earned him an All-Star nod last month in Ottawa and Tavares is living up to every one of the expectations that followed him out of junior hockey when the Islanders selected him No. 1 overall in the 2009 Draft.
The Islanders currently stand eight points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, winning seven of their last 12 games, and looked poised to be in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
"It just feels like we're in a little bit of a better of a position to keep ourselves sin it here and play more meaningful games down the stretch and try and make something happen," said Tavares after practice on Friday.
We spoke to Tavares about his season so far, the decision to commit long-term to the Islanders, living up to expectations, what he'll miss least about Nassau Coliseum, and more.
Q. Are you guys approaching these final 30 games with a playoff mentality, knowing that there's a lot of ground to make up?
TAVARES: Yeah, we have to. We didn't have the best of starts to the season. We've put that behind us now and played some better hockey, but we're playing some catch up. We've got to win a lot more than we're losing. Every point for now is crucial. Every game is crucial.
We've got to have the understanding of that we can't have any more games off, shifts off, periods off. We have to bring our best each and every day, or at least our competitiveness, our work ethic. When we're not playing at our best we've got to find ways to get the job done, and that's what playoff teams do and good teams do is that they find ways to win when maybe you're not at your best. It's a big stretch for us.
What would you attribute your production this season to? Comfort level? More confidence in your third year?
I think it's just growing as a player, you just get to learn the league better. Obviously more comfortable with your surroundings. I've worked on a lot of things the last two summers to get stronger, to improve areas in my game and I really start to feel them pay off and when you see it pay off I think you really want to keep getting better and keep pushing yourself even more because you see the success that you start to have and the rewarding feeling you have when you work on something and it pays off like it has.
How have your linemates helped you this season?
They've been great. I've played with Matt Moulson all season. Me and him have a good friendship that goes way back and our chemistry and friendship have been a big part of our success, I think for both of us. He's been huge for me and I think I've been good for him as well. And playing with Kyle Okposo and P.A. Parenteau most of the year, both guys play a little bit different style, but bring huge elements to our team and our line and our game. Kyle's strength on the puck and his ability to win battles and make plays with a nice set of hands. And the way P.A. sees the ice and finds the open ice, he sees it at an exceptional level.
What's the adjustment been like from having Doug [Weight] next to you on the bench to now as a coach?
It's different. I know it hasn't been easy for him. He's such a good guy and got such a great mind for the game. He really understands what we're going through and he's trying to understand what it's like being behind the bench and working with the coaching staff. He's done a great job with our power play, it's been a key thing for us this year and he's been a huge part of that. It's nice to see him around because of the leadership he still has and the respect that everyone has for him in our locker room.
He really likes giving it to the refs, doesn't he?
Yeah, he's an intense guy. I know he was hurt a lot in my two years I got to play with him. Even at his age, the fire he has and his desire to win and his passion for the game, he gets involved. I don't think he means any disrespect, I think it's just who he is, the competitor he is. I think it's hard for him not to be out there on the ice to make a difference and sometimes it probably comes out of him a little bit too much than he would like, but he cares.
You, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, and now Frans Nielsen have all signed long-term deals. What is it, not only about the organization, but Long Island itself that made you want to commit to this franchise long-term?
I think, starting with the team and organization, our approach in wanting to win and wanting to be successful, be it playoff team and contender year-in and year-out. It's been a process and we're still working to get there, but I think you see the attitude and the culture in our locker room and how that's changing and how guys want to get to that next level and compete in the playoffs. I believe that's gonna happen here, sooner rather than later. The opportunity the organization has given me and the rest of the guys, we feel like it's a great fit for us and they've helped us grow as players. We want to bring that success and winning tradition that was here back and I'd love to be a part of that.
Long Island, in general, you're in New York, close to the city, but at the same time we can get away and really get to enjoy some peace and quiet. There's always so much to do. It's a great area of us to hang out as well and be together and have that kind of family kind of feel, whether it's back home with our families or in the locker room with the team. We've got that camaraderie that's real close that's gonna help us moving forward.
With the hype surrounding you in junior and into the 2009 Draft when the Islanders selected you No. 1 overall, did you put any pressure on yourself to live up to those expectations in that first or second year?
I've always put pressure on myself, maybe sometimes too much, but I think that's all part of the process of learning what it takes to be good at this level and keep getting better.
Everyday I feel like I'm learning something new and improving in certain areas of my game. There's a lot of expectation with being selected in that position, but I've been through it for a while now, but I accept the challenge. I love the challenge. Not only that, but playing at this level, trying to get better, trying to compete with the best players in the world, trying to be successful against them. That's what drives me and what's so much fun about this game.
Finally, when you guys finally get the new building here, what will you miss least about the Nassau Coliseum?
It's funny, everyone thinks how much of a dump the Coliseum is. As much as we're here, you start to call it home, you start to feel comfortable here.
I think it'll just be nice just to have the new state-of-the-art facility. We want to be able to put a good product on the ice and be more successful so we can have a full building and have that support and give our fans something to cheer for, something to be proud of. We know that it's been a while since the team's been real successful.
Other than that, I think the Coliseum, whether it's just new seats for the fans to sit in or new lighting to see better out on the ice, all of those things will be new upgrades from now. This is home and you get comfortable with it.
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy