Jack Capuano began preparing for Game 2 of this playoff series right after Game 1 ended, or more likely 20 years ago. The Islanders’ coach has been paying his dues for a long time. He has been doing a lot of collecting, too.
He was picking up knowledge, gaining judgment and sharpening his instincts while standing behind the bench for the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks, the Pee Dee Pride (of Florence, South Carolina) and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Capuano has been storing it all up for occasions just like Saturday afternoon, when his team continues the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and has a chance to take a 2-0 lead on the road.
Capuano is a symbol of the modern coach in the NHL, a league in which they do not offer quick promotions to big names the way they do in baseball (Paul Molitor, Robin Ventura, Don Mattingly) or basketball (Jason Kidd). Of the eight coaches remaining in the playoffs, the only one with any cachet as an NHL player is the Stars’ Lindy Ruff. The Islanders’ guy is the prototypical hard- working plumber of a defenseman who retired and hit the road to learn everything he could about how to coach, including how hard coaching is.
You can get hit on the head, figuratively speaking, in the expansive social media age. You can get hit in the nose, literally, by a fiercely stray puck, which happened to Capuano on Wednesday night, forcing him to rush from the bench alongside a trainer trying desperately to stanch the blood flow.
You learn not to be afraid to use young players, such as Alan Quine, who scored in the second overtime of Game 5 against the Panthers, and Shane Prince, who scored two goals in Game 1 against the Lightning on Wednesday night. You learn not to be scared to bench them — Anders Lee in Game 7 against the Capitals last year, Ryan Strome at the end of the Panthers series. You study video and study players to know how they will handle every situation.
“Me personally, as a coach, I’d rather be playing,” Capuano said, bearing only a slight scar on the bridge of his nose. He recalled the joy of being in the NCAA championship game for Maine and competing in the International Hockey League playoffs with the Milwaukee Admirals. “As a coach, it’s different. You’re just trying to prepare your guys — special teams, five- on-five, faceoff assignments, whatever it may be. The players, they want to play the game. They want to have fun. They’re embracing the challenge.”
Islanders players are enjoying the ride largely because Capuano has pressed the right buttons. He put center Frans Nielsen on the wing with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo at the end of the regular season, then switched Nielsen back to center against Florida. He started Ryan Pulock in the playoffs despite his inexperience, then went to Marek Zidlicky when Pulock got hurt, and watched Zidlicky set up Quine’s overtime goal.
You learn how to change on the fly. Before Game 1 against the fast, skilled Lightning, Capuano put Nielsen with Prince and Strome. “Right off the bat, we knew that line was not going to work,” he said the next day after subbing Brock Nelson for Nielsen and ending the first period with a 3-1 lead.
By Friday, he had reminded them to forget about the win, just as he would have if they had had a bad game. Recalling his words, Prince said: “Tomorrow is a new day. It real ly means nothing now. We’ve got to go out and do the same thing tomorrow.”
By Sunday, Capuano might get crushed on Twitter by the Islanders fans he always praises. So be it. He has learned that is part of the job, too. You get over it, the way you get past taking a puck to the nose.