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Nikolay Kulemin has helped Tavares-Okposo line become more responsible defensively

Nikolai Kulemin of the New York Islanders celebrates

Nikolai Kulemin of the New York Islanders celebrates his second-period shorthanded goal against the Colorado Avalanche at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Jack Capuano could have expected the addition of Nikolay Kulemin to the Islanders' top line would have allowed John Tavares and Kyle Okposo to find more open ice, thanks to the steady, big-wing presence of Kulemin.

What the coach might not have expected was that Kulemin would make his two star linemates better in the defensive zone.

"We knew we needed to be better in that area," Tavares said of himself and Okposo, who had been guilty of trying to do too much through the opening 10 games with Cory Conacher on their left. "Kulie is a guy who doesn't take short cuts. He's helped us be better in our own zone."

There were plenty of highlights from Tuesday's 6-0 win over the Avalanche, but the only ones from the top line were at the defensive end.

Okposo twice hustled back to break up Colorado rushes, sticking with the puck-handler to disrupt a possible pass to a trailing player after the Avs gained the zone. There were no "fly-bys," where a backchecking player doesn't stop at the puck-handler but curls by and turns around. It's the sort of play that drives coaches bonkers.

The sort of plays that Okposo made help goaltenders, too. "Everyone was tracking back tonight," Jaroslav Halak said after recording his second straight shutout. "It's a team effort."

Kulemin scored 30 goals with the Leafs in 2010-11, a number he doesn't seem likely to equal. But even without scoring much -- he has two shorthanded goals this season and eight total points -- the 6-1, 225-pound winger is still making an impact in his first Islanders season.

"He's basically a bull out there," Tavares said. "He's strong on the puck, he knows his game and he plays it well."

Notes & quotes: The Islanders had yesterday off with practice today and back-to-back games in Florida starting Friday against the Panthers and Lightning . . . Johnny Boychuk felt no ill effects from his sore knee on Tuesday, leading the Islanders with 21:38 of ice time and an assist, his 10th point.

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