As the New York Islanders begin to move on without their top player, the Toronto Maple Leafs and their Olympic star look to pick up where they left off before the break.
With the third-fewest points in the Eastern Conference, New York (22-30-8) already faced an extremely formidable task trying to return to the playoffs with Tavares in the lineup. After he tore the MCL and meniscus in his left knee while playing for Canada in Sochi, the challenge becomes considerably more difficult.
Tavares is third in the NHL with 66 points (24 goals, 42 assists) and the major drawing card for an Islanders club that's dropped two straight and seven of eight.
''Obviously we know how important he is to our hockey club," coach Jack Capuano said. "When you talk about a most valuable player to your team, the way that we play and the success we've had, he is a big part of that."
In addition to Tavares, Frans Nielsen, third on the team with 43 points, is out with a broken hand suffered in a 5-2 loss to Colorado on Feb. 8.
The Islanders called up forwards Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Mike Halmo from Bridgeport of the AHL. The trio combined for 127 points while making up the affiliate's top line and will try to add some offensive life to a New York team that was held to one or two goals in five straight games before the break.
"You can't replace a guy like (Tavares), but everyone has an opportunity to pick up the slack," forward Colin McDonald told the Islanders' official website. "Hopefully guys are looking forward to it."
Trying to avoid a sixth consecutive loss at Nassau Coliseum, New York faces a difficult test right out of the Olympic break against a Toronto team that has won two straight and 11 of 14.
"We've gotten some big wins," defenseman Dion Phaneuf said after the Maple Leafs (32-22-6) beat Vancouver 3-1 on Feb. 8. "We wanted to get as many points as we could going into the break and we did that.''
Named the Olympics' top forward after recording five goals and three assists for the United States, Kessel has 65 points this season and recorded 11 goals with 16 assists in the last 15 games.
He had two goals in a 5-2 home win over New York on Nov. 19, but was held without a point in the 5-3 loss to the Islanders on Jan. 7. Kessel has no goals and three assists in seven games at Nassau Coliseum as a member of the Maple Leafs.
Toronto, however, is in the midst of a 4-0-1 stretch on Long Island. The Maple Leafs have scored 14 goals during a three-game road winning streak against the Islanders, with the last two being decided in overtime.
Kessel's Toronto and Olympic teammate James van Riemsdyk has already set career highs with 24 goals and 23 assists. He has four of each in the last seven games, and one with two assists in his last four against the Islanders.