To be fair, some smart hockey people always did envision an impressive spring like this from Thomas Hickey. The Kings did pick him fourth overall in the 2007 draft, attracted by the size of his heart more than his frame (generously listed as 6 feet, 189 pounds). They did not mind that he was rather small for an NHL defenseman. They had bulk elsewhere, such as their hulking forward prospect, Brian Boyle.
Hickey was a leader in junior hockey and joined the Kings’ affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs, in late March 2009, days after Boyle had been called up to Los Angeles. But injuries, the numbers game and other factors kept things from working out for Hickey with the Kings. They let him go in 2013, the Islanders claimed him on waivers and here he is, playing a leading role in May.
Jack Capuano said Thursday, “I’ve always said he has taken advantage of his opportunity. He understands how he has to play, he understands what his strengths are. He’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he plays big.”
The little defenseman has had a massive impact on the Islanders’ postseason, scoring the goal that clinched a playoff spot and the first overtime playoff goal in Barclays Center history. That won Game 3 of the Panthers series, helping the franchise turn an important corner. That led to the pivotal Game 5, a 2-1 double-overtime victory in which Hickey assisted on both goals.
Bottom line: He has been at the heart of this playoff run, right through Game 3 against the Lightning on Tuesday night. Hickey gave and received the two most resounding hits, nailing Jonathan Drouin, then being knocked to the ice by Boyle, leading to the latter’s overtime goal. The play, in turn, led to two days of bitter feelings.
Hickey, who knows that Capuano vehemently called Boyle’s hit “a head shot,” chose not to say much about the episode after practice in Syosset on Thursday, other than recalling the seconds after he was dazed: “I got up, looked at my stick, grabbed my stick, and he was putting the puck in the net.”
As for whether it should have been a penalty, Hickey said he would let the coach speak for the team, adding, “It’s a long series. There are plays that you agree with and plays that you don’t. We’re on both sides of those. That’s part of the game and we’ll move on.”
Hickey, 27, of Calgary, Alberta, will be ready for Game 4 in Brooklyn on Friday night, ready for more of whatever it takes.
He has enjoyed a new life as an Islander. Rather than being the first-rounder who did not pan out, he is The Overachiever. He again is the one whose intangibles won him the captain’s “C” for Canada’s 2009 gold-medal World Junior Championship team — a squad that included John Tavares.
Hickey has sharp awareness, as evidenced by the fact that he was particularly articulate last spring about what the final year of Nassau Coliseum meant to Islanders fans.
“I think the biggest thing is his hockey IQ and how he thinks the game,” Capuano said. “He has played really well for us, and when you get a guy of that size who plays that hard, it’s contagious amongst your group.”
Said Kyle Okposo, “He’s a competitor. He just brings it every day. Being drafted that high and never playing a game for L.A., he had to work. He plays such an honest, hard game, it’s awesome to see.”
The competitor in Hickey is proud to be known as more than a finesse-only puck- mover. He will do his best to hit the opposition in Game 4 and realizes that the Lightning wants to do the same to him.
“At this time of the year, you think of what you’ve done in the past four or five or 12 months to prepare your body,” said Hickey, who, according to his coach, ended Game 3 with a very bloody mouth. “But a lot of this is mental and just bearing down.”
That is how it works in the playoffs, when a small guy can come up big.