Islanders battle through injuries, make playoffs
WASHINGTON (AP) — Losing another player to injury struck a nerve for Jack Capuano. The New York Islanders' coach couldn't remember how many times in recent weeks his team had to finish a game with only five defensemen.
''I don't want to answer any more questions on the injury front, to be honest with you,'' Capuano said. ''It's been a long month about it, and there's nothing you can do about it.''
Injuries have decimated the Islanders over the past several weeks, and yet on Tuesday they erased a two-goal deficit to beat the NHL-leading Washington Capitals and clinch a playoff berth. They did so without starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak, top defenseman Travis Hamonic and a handful of other key contributors.
New York has shown a stubborn defiance in the face of injuries when other teams in the same situation could have wilted.
''Obviously we want guys healthy and hope they get back soon, but we want to focus on the guys each and every game that are getting ready to play, be on the same page, and we believe in one another,'' captain John Tavares said. ''To see how far some of these (young) guys have come since I've been here and seen their contributions they're making to this point of the season, they're playing quite a bit of minutes and obviously big situations. It's key for us.''
Halak has missed 14 games and Hamonic the past three with lower-body injuries, and forward Mikhail Grabovski has been out 10 games with an upper-body injury. With Jean-Francois Berube also hurt, the Islanders got down to their fourth-string goalie, Christopher Gibson, who made 29 saves against the Capitals.
Calvin de Haan's lower-body injury suffered Monday at Tampa Bay and Brian Strait's upper-body injury that knocked him out of the Washington game Tuesday forced more changes on the blue line. Tavares noted the growth of young defensemen Scott Mayfield and Ryan Pulock, whose play has been essential.
''I remember Scotty playing in the playoffs last year and coming up for a little bit. You can really see the poise in his game has come a long way, his positioning, his ability to defend hard and get pucks up the ice and create turnovers,'' Tavares said. ''And Ryan, over the course of the last 30 games, has really gotten comfortable, wanting to jump in the play and use his size really well. To see those guys come in with all the injuries we've had, it's huge.''
Defenseman Thomas Hickey, who came back from a skate-cut scare to score the overtime winner at clinched a playoff spot, said injuries have revealed the organization's depth. Thirty different players, including four goalies, have dressed for a game this season.
''Just guys stepping up, just an attitude,'' Hickey said. ''It's not one or two guys, everyone just sort of pulling on the same strings.''
Since going 2-5-2 when Halak went out, the Islanders have won five of six games to cement their playoff position. A couple of times it was leading scorer and franchise player Tavares leading the way and others it was goaltender Thomas Greiss, defenseman Nick Leddy or forward Cal Clutterbuck - who's also now hurt.
The Islanders have become accustomed to injury roulette. And while players obviously don't want this kind of seasoning, it has its benefits.
''It kind of gives us some perspective on how we need to play,'' forward Kyle Okposo said. ''I think we might play a little bit more simpler when we have some guys out. If we can get our full lineup in and get everybody on the same page and playing the way that we need to, we're going to be a pretty good hockey team.''
Don't expect that to happen any time soon. Capuano said it's going to be hard to predict lineups and ''there's going to be a lot of game-time decisions,'' continuing with the Islanders' game Thursday at the Rangers.
That's just life for the Islanders right now.
''I'm not going to put anybody in here that is not going to be able to help our team,'' Capuano said. ''We feel like we got the depth of character of our team to go out and put the guys in the lineup that we feel can compete at a high level, and that's what we're going to do.''
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