It is an honor for a team if it can maintain its true identity in the heat of the playoffs. It also can be a problem. For the Islanders, the postseason has been a continuation of a theme that has been running like a leaky faucet for seven years: Trying to find the right guy to skate alongside John Tavares.
Maintaining that search now, deep into the series against the Lightning and deep in a 3-1 hole, is a little like holding auditions as the curtain goes up on opening night. That is what makes it so vexing. In a second consecutive excruciating home loss Friday night, the Islanders did not have anyone to take the pressure off their captain and star, who was kept off the scoresheet again.
To his credit, he never, ever complains. He was stoic after the 2-1 defeat in Game 4, despite being hounded and pounded by the Lightning. It would be great if the Islanders had a permanent left wing who could make the opposition pay by putting pucks in the net while some defenseman is carving Tavares with a stick (as Braydon Coburn did during a memorable sequence Friday that ended with the Islanders captain giving Coburn four cross-checks in a row).
No whining from Tavares, who was typically philosophical and optimistic: “It can be a little frustrating, but that’s playoff hockey. It’s a fine line and you’ve got to overcome those things and find ways to win.”
Jack Capuano has been creatively finding ways to win for two months now. He steered the Islanders into the playoffs by temporarily putting Frans Nielsen on the left wing with Tavares and Kyle Okposo. That worked for a while, but was unfair to Nielsen, a good and valuable center. Plus it hurt the other lines. So the coach gave a shot to Alan Quine in the Panthers series and found some magic.
With that spark having run its course, Capuano Friday switched to Shane Prince, the star with two goals in Game 1 against the Lightning. But that did not work against goalie Ben Bishop, who took a couple of whacks here and there at Tavares. What’s more, Prince couldn’t quite nudge the puck out of the defensive zone before the overtime goal.
Who knows who gets the assignment in Game 5 Sunday afternoon? Whoever it is needs to take the burden off the franchise centerpiece who carried them through Round One.
Ryan Strome, who had a bounce back performance in his return to the lineup and his natural center position, said, “It doesn’t matter who we have out there, we’re confident. We’re fine. We’ve got a lot of confidence in this group. We’re pretty resilient. We’ve been thru some ups and downs this year individually and as a team. There is no doubt in my mind we’ll have our best game of the year.”
This series and the grimaces on Tavares’ face Friday underscored the reality that Garth Snow needs to spend this offseason securing a Tavares line once and for all. He might have to find two wings, what with Okposo’s free agency. Ideally, of course, Tavares could use an enforcer who can score a ton, but Clark Gillies is 62 years old. Besides, this is a different era and Hall of Fame power forwards are not in vogue.
A skilled offensive player will do. If Travis Hamonic still insists on being traded to western Canada, perhaps the Islanders can pick up one of the Oilers’ many young forwards.
That is neither here nor there for today, though. I actually agree with Strome and expect the Islanders to have a heck of a Game 5. Tavares has breathed an entirely new life into the franchise. This is nothing like 2004, when the Islanders lost in five to the eventual champion Lightning. Back then, the Islanders scored no goals in two games at the Coliseum. Toward the end of Game 4, fans chanted something to the effect of, “We stink!”
Game 4 at Barclays Center Friday was thrilling to the finish. Tavares always gives the Islanders a puncher’s chance to win any game. His organization and his team need to give him a chance to be a champion.