FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Maybe it was just coincidence, that John Tavares had by far his best week of the year right when Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo were moved to the captain’s wings.
But perhaps, after spending the entire season searching for the right complements to Tavares, Jack Capuano hit on just the right combination at just the right time.
“We want to keep building on the success we’ve had,” Tavares said of the true No. 1 line that will likely start Game 1 on Thursday in Sunrise against the Panthers. “What’s great about those two guys is that they’re very driven.”
Tavares and Okposo have played together often over the past few years. The same is true for Nielsen and Okposo. But Nielsen has only been a center — and a pretty effective one — for the vast majority of his 606 games as an Islander, so moving him to wing was a bold decision by Capuano.
That move was made last Monday for the Isles’ crucial game against the Lightning. Coming off a 5-0 drubbing by the Penguins in which no one came away unscathed, Capuano saw what many Isles observers have noticed through this mostly frustrating season for Tavares: He needs at least one elite winger to really elevate his game.
Last Monday, he got two. And immediately posted back-to-back three-point games as the Isles downed Tampa and then nipped the Caps in overtime to earn a postseason berth.
Capuano wouldn’t commit to keeping his top line together for Thursday, though it seems clear with the way Tavares played — he earned the NHL’s first star for last week with nine points in four games — that this is the right trio.
“Fransy has been a tremendous center for us over the years, so we have some decisions to make,” Capuano said.
Whatever line Tavares centers will get plenty of face time with Brian Campbell and Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ top defense pair. If those two are occupied with Tavares, that leaves a couple of lesser D pairs for the Isles’ second and third lines, so the postseason would be a good time for those middle six forwards to produce.
Brock Nelson’s 26 goals were second on the team this season but he, too, has not had consistent linemates. He’s been the second-line center of late, between Nikolay Kulemin and Josh Bailey. Ryan Strome, trying to put a disappointing regular season behind him, has worked the past two days with Steve Bernier on his right and either Shane Prince or Alan Quine on his left.
It’s not murderer’s row by any means. But if the Nielsen-Tavares-Okposo line stays intact, that means a few underachieving or unknown Isles have to produce on other lines.
After scoring only 15 goals against the Caps in last season’s seven-game series loss, eight goals in the final five games, everyone in the Isles room is aware offense has to come from up and down the lineup.
“A lot of the guys here now were here last year and we want to make we’ve learned from that series, good and bad,” Okposo said.
Tavares certainly has. He held onto the Game 7 loss to Washington last year for a long time over the summer, a game in which he didn’t have a shot attempt; this season was more struggle than success for him personally, though his strong second half left him with 70 points in 78 games, good for 16th in the league.
“There’s been some ups and downs, just as there’s ups and downs in a playoff series,” Tavares said. “It’s about how you handle the ups and downs. I think we have a better sense of what it’s going to take.”