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Sizing up the Isles' power play ahead of opening night

New York Islanders newest defensemen Johnny Boychuk on

New York Islanders newest defensemen Johnny Boychuk on the ice at Nassau Coliseum on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014 in Uniondale. Credit: Howard Schnapp

RALEIGH, N.C. - A few notes with a few hours to go until game time for the Islanders:

Just how much penalty kill time did Johnny Boychuk get in Boston? "Heavy," he said. "Heavy PK."

That was surely music to Jack Capuano's ears. Boychuk alone won't solve the Isles' penalty killing issues, but he'll be a big part of any solution. The Bruins have been in the top 11 on the PK the last three seasons. The Isles, in the same span, have been 23rd, 21st and 29th, and that includes a playoff season.

Some may recall that playoff loss to the Penguins as well -- Pittsburgh essentially won the series with its power play, scoring on a third (7-for-21) of its chances.

Now, the Isles have a chance to correct things. Boychuk helps. Jaroslav Halak, Friday night's starter in goal, helps more. New assistant coach Greg Cronin has been trying to get the penalty kill units to be aggressive but also better know where everyone is on the ice to make sure the four-man box doesn't get stretched out, which opens the door to those pesky seam passes that work an awful lot against the Isles.

"I like what Cro has been doing," said Frans Nielsen, one of the mainstays of the PK the past few seasons. "A lot of it is about knowing where you are and what happens when you move, trusting the other guys to be where they're supposed to be. You start running around and overcommitting and you see what can happen."

The forward pairs will look a bit different than past seasons. Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck have worked as a forward pair throughout the preseason, as have Nielsen and Nikolay Kulemin. Cizikas actually may get preference over Nielsen because of his faceoff abilities.

Boychuk will be out there early and often among the defensemen, along with Travis Hamonic and Brian Strait. Thomas Hickey has done PK work, but usually only when the Isles are short on defense (no pun intended). Not sure about Nick Leddy. Perhaps Griffin Reinhart can work his way into the PK rotation.

This stuff is pretty crucial, as noted with the ugly stats above. Nielsen has said more than once that he felt last season's Isles team could easily have made the playoffs with a better PK.

-- Cory Conacher is a guy to root for. Forget about his stature. A person who's rebounded from four major surgeries before age 7, been diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age 8 and went undrafted? We can all get behind someone who's been fighting to make it since birth.

So here he is, starting Friday night's opener on the top line with two all-world players (but only one Olympian, ahem).

"Yeah, it's pretty special," Conacher said. "Coaches and management told me when I signed that I'd have a chance to earn a spot and this is a pretty good spot, starting with John [Tavares] and Kyle [Okposo]. I think we work well together. I like to go to the net, create traffic and those guys do well with a lot of space to maneuver."

Capuano cautioned against making too much of the opening lines, since he'll be quick to change if he doesn't see what he wants, perhaps quicker than he's pulled the trigger in the past since the preseason was not exactly filled with dominating shifts from any line.

-- Capuano says he hasn't thought about who starts in goal on Saturday. Chad Johnson smiled and said nothing when asked if he'd been told about the home opener.

But Capuano is well aware of the downside of starting a goalie on consecutive nights. Numerous writers, from Eric T. at Broad Street Hockey to a few others who have leaped from analytics writing to NHL team employee, have calculated the far lower save percentages from goaltenders on the second half of back-to-backs.

So the bet here is Johnson plays Saturday against Carolina. That would set a smart trend of using the very clear data to set off on a good course with two new goaltenders.

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