Islanders have some experience and talent to lean on
The Islanders brought in three playoff-tested veterans before the season, and in Monday night's Game 7 in Washington against the Capitals, the Isles will rely heavily on the cool and savvy of the three: Jaroslav Halak in net and Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk on defense.
But the Islanders will need their longtime core to carry them through to a conference semifinal matchup with the Rangers. John Tavares, Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Matt Martin -- the only Game 7 experience for any of these Islanders vets came when they were teenagers playing amateur hockey, if then.
"These are the kinds of games, you see them on TV every playoff and you wish to be a part of them," Nielsen said Sunday. "I think it's a lot of excitement in this room right now. You can feel it that something big is going to happen tomorrow."
Jack Capuano pushed the right lineup buttons in Saturday's 3-1 win at Nassau Coliseum, gambling on little-used Matt Donovan and AHL call-up Scott Mayfield on defense and veteran Colin McDonald over rookie Anders Lee at forward.
The stakes will be higher Monday night, and not just because it's Game 7. With the Capitals at home, Washington will have the option of the last line change. That could put Donovan and Mayfield in far different situations than they faced in playing 10:17 and 10:30, respectively -- extremely limited ice time for a defense pair.
Leddy and Boychuk logged 28:59 and 27:00 minutes in Game 6, a number that might only grow if Capuano is to get his top defense pair on against Alex Ovechkin as often as possible. Ovechkin had an assist on the Capitals' lone goal in Game 6 and had three shots on net, his lowest total in the series.
This will be Boychuk's eighth Game 7, Leddy's fourth and Halak's third. Among the remaining Islanders likely to suit up, only Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, who were part of the Maple Leafs' historic Game 7 meltdown against Boychuk's Bruins in the first round two springs ago, have played in a Game 7 in the NHL.
"We'll lean on those guys," Capuano said, "but we're also going to lean on the guys who have been here a long time."
That's the challenge for the Tavares-led core, a group of Islanders who have emerged from the sludge of past unsuccessful seasons to have a chance to win a playoff series for the first time since the Isles' last Game 7 triumph in 1993. In that series, David Volek etched his name in franchise lore with his overtime winner in Pittsburgh to defeat the vaunted Penguins.
This series is a round earlier and the Islanders and Capitals are far more evenly matched than those plucky Isles and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. But it still marks an opportunity to cement a place in Isles history as well as allow Long Islanders to see at least two more games at the Coliseum.
"You don't think about the situation, you don't think about the magnitude of the game while you're out there. The puck drops and you just go and play," Okposo said. "You have to use those nerves the right way. It's going to be fun."