Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Major matchup

John Tavares is second in the NHL with 26 goals; he is the unquestioned leader of the surging New York Islanders; and today Winnipeg defenceman Zach Bogosian is assigned the task of shutting down the star centre, whose team stands in the way of the Jets' march to the playoffs

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To suggest the winner of the battle between Zach Bogosian and John Tavares will determine the winner of today's game might be a bit of an oversimplification but it's likely not far off.

If Bogosian can crimp the flow of offence Tavares provides for the New York Islanders, the Winnipeg Jets should win.

Tavares ran wild, scoring a pair of goals in a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday and if he's allowed to do the same today, the chances of the Isles leaving Winnipeg with a win will be greatly increased.

Bogosian would someday like to call himself one of the best defenceman in the NHL. To do that, he'll need to take challenges such as the one he's facing today and win the one-on-one games within the game.

The growth of Bogosian as a defenceman has been obvious this season: He's become comfortable using both his speed and his size to eliminate the opposition's offence. The 22-year-old is developing into a shutdown defender with offensive upside. The Jets have taken to relying heavily on him down the stretch giving him the most diffcult matchup assignments.

Tavares, however, is no run-of-the-mill player and Jets coach Claude Noel responded with a sure and quick "not many," when asked Friday about players he's seen this year that have been better.

"He's been such a force all season for the Islanders. He's such a strong offensive threat and he brings so many other elements to the game. He's a leader in the dressing room, not just verbally but in the way he carries himself and as such a professional," said Islanders legend and MSG colour analyst Butch Goring. "But when he gets on the ice, that's when the real John Tavares shows up. He plays with all this passion and energy. He's so motivated on a constant basis. He defintely leads the Islanders and I don't think they'd be in this position without him."

Tavares, also 22, ranks second in the NHL with 26 goals and is ninth in points with 45. He's led his team on a run that has catapulted the Isles into seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 51 points, three ahead of the Jets.

New York has earned points in nine straight games (7-0-2) and are 10-1-2 in their last 13.

But handle Tavares and most often the Islanders will not have an answer. In games where the centre has been held pointless this season, his club has a 3-10-3 mark.

Jets assistant coach Charlie Huddy says he'll try to match Bogosian against Tavares as much as possible in the early going and then adjust as the game dictates.

Bogosian began nodding his head quickly when asked if he would be chasing Tavares today.

"He's got such good hockey smarts and he's so good with the puck. Over the years, I think he's become a much better skater," said Bogosian. "In junior, you can get away with a lot but when you get to the pro level, you can't. He's got it all. The hockey sense, the skill and now he's got the speed. He's one of those guys that can really hurt you when you turn the puck over. He can strike quick."

Goring won four Stanley Cups on Long Island back in the '80s and he paid Tavares the ultimate compliment on Friday.

"We'd find a place for him, that's for sure," said Goring. "They are different eras but some players can play in any era and John is one of them. If a player can skate and think out there, and those are two of his strengths, he'll do OK. John would have contributed on our teams. Without question."

Bogosian and Tavares have a history dating back to the their junior days in the OHL and each new chapter is something to look forward to, said the Jets defenceman.

"We've played against each other since we were 16. Tavares was in Oshawa (Generals) and I was in Peterborough with the Petes. That's a pretty big rivalry in the OHL. We have a mutual respect. We don't say much to each other out there but we both want to win. A lot," said Bogosian. "With him, you want to be physical. With a guy like (Alex) Ovechkin, if you run him early you might just wake him up and sometimes he can spend the rest of the night making you pay. But a player like Tavares, you can't pass up a chance to hit him."

The risk in trying to put the body on Tavares is he can make you miss and make you regret it. Bogosian has the speed to stick with most forwards in the NHL and of late he's become more and more confident in his ability to overpower the opposition.

Don't expect Bogosian, or anyone in the NHL for that matter, to tag Tavares with an open-ice check. He simply doesn't provide those opportunities. But Bogosian will look to wear him down along the boards and in the corners.

The Jets are on the cusp of pushing through and becoming a playoff team and Bogosian's advancement has been a big part of this surge.

Today's a chance for him to take another step. And bring the Jets right along with him.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 C3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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