John Tavares remarked after the Islanders' 5-3 win in Raleigh on Friday how he wasn't quite aware how much of a beast Nikolay Kulemin can be on the puck.
Perhaps Tavares should have asked his locker-room neighbor.
"Oh, I knew all about him," Frans Nielsen said of Kulemin, his new teammate and linemate through two games. "You play against him, you remember. He's so strong on the puck, along the wall, he's relentless. It's a great guy to have on your line and on the team."
The Josh Bailey-Nielsen-Kulemin line was effective on the road, but it was in its designed element at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday: Deployed primarily to counter the Alex Semin-Eric Staal-Jiri Tlusty line, Nielsen's checking line was very effective throughout the game and produced the crucial and eventual game-winning goal, by Bailey, with 3.6 seconds to go in the second.
That goal capped off a defensive sequence that was one of the reasons Nielsen said he's awed by Kulemin's relentlessness: The big Isles forward tried to get the puck from Canes defenseman Andrej Sekera at the point in the home team's zone for nearly a minute, with the offensively gifted Sekera dancing and spinning to create room for a shot or a pass.
Kulemin wouldn't allow either, maintaining good defensive position before he and Bailey finally got the puck across the Islanders' blue line. Bailey worked it away from the wall near the Carolina bench as the visitors went for an ill-advised, messy line change, Nielsen skated onto a feed from Kulemin and Bailey drove the lane to convert Nielsen's pretty backhand pass for a 4-2 lead.
"I'm playing with two really good offensive players, two talented guys," Kulemin said. "We're not just out there to play defense."
But it's the first true third/checking line that Jack Capuano has had, the first time that Nielsen has been deployed in a way that he loves. And Bailey, who bounced around to find a spot in training camp and was dangerously close to not finding a spot among the top 12 forwards, has looked impressive in a checking wing role that no one, least of all Bailey himself, could have envisioned in years gone by. He had five hits in Raleigh on Friday, second only to hit king Matt Martin, then chipped in the game-winner on Saturday.
"In talking with the coaches and Garth [Snow] during camp, there's no mistaking what's expected here," Bailey said. "You contribute whatever way you can and you embrace your role."