Though Jack Capuano thinks his team plays better when they play more, there were moments during Monday night’s 4-2 loss against the Red Wings when maybe it seemed like this long, long break actually was coming at the right time.
The Islanders enter the All-Star break with 56 points, placing them third in the Metropolitan Division, but have the peculiar circumstance of having to manage two lengthy stretches without playing, only to play 35 games in the final 68 days of their regular season.
Thanks to last weekend’s blizzard, they’ve played only three games since Jan. 17, and don’t play again until Feb. 2. Though it’s certainly less than ideal, one of the most obvious bright spots was gliding around the ice Monday at the optional morning skate at IceWorks, where injured defenseman Johnny Boychuk made an appearance.
Boychuk, who injured his left shoulder Dec. 31, is very close to returning, Capuano said. And though the Islanders haven’t exactly languished in his absence — they’re 4-4-1 and played defensively sound hockey for three games until their struggles against the Red Wings — it’s clear they could use the stability Boychuk brings. Without Boychuk on Monday night, Capuano was shifting his defensive pairings like they were dice in a cup. The Isles have a negative goal differential since he’s been gone (they’ve been outscored 28-25) but still maintain a plus-0.26 differential for the season.
“Just to see him out there, for me it’s a breath of fresh air, I’m sure for him, being around the guys and for us, knowing that his time is not too far away,” Capuano said of Boychuk. “Now you just want to make sure that you condition yourself and that you get healthy and then we’ll re-evaluate him after the break. We’ve got an additional week here and there’s a good chance after the break, hopefully sooner rather than later, he’ll be back in the lineup.”
That’s certainly good news, especially considering the defense’s woes in transition Monday night. At various junctures, Capuano had Marek Zidlicky skate with Brian Strait, Nick Leddy and Thomas Hickey. He wasn’t the only one to move around as the Islanders struggled mightily to get out of their own end and establish some level of pace against a quick Red Wings team.
“We couldn’t execute,” Capuano said. “It’s like we haven’t gone through the reps. It was just disappointing to me that the last nine periods of hockey our ‘D’ have broke the puck up well, they’ve communicated the puck on the stick . . . It was not the execution level that we needed, and that’s why we couldn’t exit the zone.”
Boychuk has 14 points this season, second only to Leddy, who has 18, and he’s played nine fewer games. His plus-minus rating of plus-9 is the highest on the team. And a swift return after the All-Star break would be particularly fortuitous.
“It’s going to be tough hockey,” Travis Hamonic said. “It’s pretty close right now. I’ll say it’s playoff hockey from now on . . . It’s physical. It’s certainly grinding, so your body takes a toll . . . You’re obviously going to welcome the break and have an opportunity to rest your body and step away from the rink for a day or two and regroup and prepare yourself for a really tough stretch.”