The Islanders' top scorer notched two goals and added an assist in the Islanders' 4-3 victory on Saturday night that completed New York's four-game season sweep of the Hurricanes.
Kevin Poulin made 33 saves for the Islanders (25-25-8), who pulled within six points of eighth-place Toronto in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The last time the Islanders had at least a .500 record after Feb. 1 was four years ago.
"We have one goal in mind and that is to make the playoffs," said Tavares, who has yet to reach the postseason since the Islanders made him the top overall pick in the 2009 draft. "We have a great opportunity. Our next game is huge."
The Islanders will host seventh-place Ottawa on Monday.
Tavares broke a 3-3 tie 38 seconds into the third when he knocked a rebound past goalie Justin Peters, who replaced starter Cam Ward to begin the period. Ward left the game with a lower-body injury, the Hurricanes said. It was Tavares' 24th goal of the season.
"We worked at wearing them down," Tavares said. "That's a big part of our game."
Tavares, who has 58 points this season, also has six assists versus the Hurricanes (22-26-11). Carolina is tied with Buffalo at 55 points for last in the conference.
"You have to find ways to win this time of year," Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said. "The guys fought hard, but we came up short."
The 21-year-old Poulin was recalled from AHL Bridgeport this week to replace No. 1 goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who was out with the flu. Poulin made two point-blank saves in the closing seconds to preserve his second win.
"We outplayed them in the third, got the goal we need and shut them down," Poulin said. "I'm really comfortable here. I'm not nervous, just excited every game."
Since Tavares posted two goals and two assists in New York's 5-2 win at Raleigh on Jan. 31, he had only two assists in eight games as the Islanders scored only 12 times.
"It's easy to see that when John goes well, it really lifts our team," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "And Kevin played a great game for us. From now on, every game and every shift is important. We simply have to be ready every night."
Nielsen's power-play goal gave New York a 3-2 lead 8:01 into the second period, but Carolina defenseman Jaroslav Spacek tied it with a shot from the point at 10:58.
Nielsen's goal finished a slick passing sequence between him, Tavares and P.A. Parenteau, who tied a career high in points at 53 with two assists. Parenteau was originally credited with a third assist on Tavares' winning goal but a scoring change gave the assist to Mark Streit. Parenteau has 41 assists this season, fifth-most in the NHL.
"P.A. is one of those guys who brings a lot with how he plays," Capuano said. "He doesn't like to lose and he doesn't lose focus."
The Islanders also beat Carolina in Raleigh 4-3 in a shootout on Jan. 3 and 2-1 in overtime in their previous game on Long Island on Jan. 21.
New York took the lead 2:07 in on Okposo's 13th.
Brandon Sutter tied the game 1-1 at 13:47 of the first on a 2-on-1 break with Patrick Dwyer. It was the 13th goal of the season for the 23-year-old Sutter, the son of Calgary Flames coach and former Islanders forward Brent Sutter.
Carolina's Jiri Tlusty put the Hurricanes ahead 2-1 just 15 seconds into the second before Tavares scored on a picturesque sweep around Spacek at 4:10 for his first goal since Jan. 31.
The Hurricanes were 4-0-2 in their previous six games, including a 4-2 home win over San Jose on Friday.
Hurricanes captain Eric Staal extended his point streak to eight games with an assist on Spacek's goal. He has five goals and four assists during the spurt.
"This was a game we really wanted but we didn't have an answer for their top line," Staal said. "That was the difference."
The Hurricanes won all four meetings with the Islanders last season, outscoring New York 18-8. ... Last season, the Islanders were 15-12-6 after the All-Star Break. They are 6-3-1 this season since the break. ... The Hurricanes were without forwards Chad LaRose and Tuomo Ruutu because of undisclosed upper body injuries, and D Joni Pitkanen (concussion). Ruutu leads Carolina with 17 goals. ... The Islanders were missing defensemen Travis Hamonic (facial injuries), Dylan Reese (knee) and Mike Mottau (concussion). ... New York improved to 10-2-1 in games that are tied after 40 minutes.