Now that it feels as if the Islanders are trailing 2-2, it is time for some deep thinking, about depth itself.
This has been a stubborn subject through all of John Tavares’ seven years with the team. The problem often has been that the Islanders tend to go into dry spells when Tavares is not on the ice. Their depth does not carry them. This is especially true in the playoffs, when defenses are more intense and narrowly targeted, as the Panthers’ was in their 2-1 victory Wednesday night.
Jack Capuano admitted the other day that he understood the trade-offs he was accepting by moving Frans Nielsen, his second-best center, up to left wing alongside Tavares. It carried a diminishing ripple effect on the other lines. The coach believed he had to do it down the stretch, when the Islanders were desperate to clinch a playoff berth. It has worked, what with Tavares totaling 21 points in his past 14 games, including the postseason.
“We needed some goal-scoring, so we just loaded up on that line,” Capuano said after practice Tuesday. But after Wednesday night’s game, he acknowledged the downside: “We’ve got one line creating all of our offense now.”
Now they have a choice: Put Nielsen back on the second line and spread out the skill level or leave him where he is, make a few minor line tweaks and hope somebody else gets hot.
Either way, they are in a tight spot heading back to Florida for Game 5 Friday night.
It feels as if they are trailing in the series because of how they played Wednesday night and because of the glorious opportunity they squandered to take a 3-1 series lead in front of their own encouraging fans.
Reality says they are not behind and that they never have been at the close of any day since the playoffs started.
Then again, reality also says that Islanders and Panthers have played more than 250 minutes in this series and that the Islanders have been ahead for less than 18. The Panthers have had the better of the play, which is a deep topic for the Islanders.
For starters, they have come to grips with the Panthers’ strengths, such as the fact that Jaromir Jagr on Wednesday night became only the fifth player in NHL history to reach 200 career playoff points (and the only one never to have played for the Oilers). Goalie Thomas Greiss, who was the best Islander on the ice for most of Game 4, said, “They’re a good, big team. We were very close together in the standings. It’s a tough series for both teams.”
Said Tavares, “They won the Atlantic Division for a reason. They use their size well and we’ve got to overcome that. We’ve got to find ways to not let them bog us down.”
Perhaps the Islanders have been bogged down by being too reliant, at least psychologically, on the fourth line, which Capuano temporarily split up on Wednesday. The value of having Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck together is that they are better than just about anyone else’s fourth line. Asking them to be more is not fair to them. The Islanders need production from lines No. 2 and 3 and from their defensemen.
Maybe feeling the need to bounce back is a positive. The Islanders are best when they are flexing their resilience. They won Game 1 after overcoming three one-goal deficits and took Game 3 after trailing by two.
There also is this to consider: The Elias Sports Bureau reported that in all Stanley Cup playoff series that have been tied 2-2, the team that won Game 5 has gone on to win the series 78.4 percent of the time.
So if the Islanders lose Friday night, they might have a new depth question, as in how deep a hole they have dug.