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Thomas Hickey bolsters Islanders' thin blue line

Ottawa Senators' Mark Stone is checked by New

Ottawa Senators' Mark Stone is checked by New York Islanders' Nikolay Kulemin and Thomas Hickey during third-period NHL game action in Ottawa, Ontario, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2014. Credit: AP / Fred Chartrand

It was a piece of video on the scoreboard in the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa that wasn't really meant to show much, other than the fact that the World Junior championships would be coming back to eastern Canada in a few weeks.

But the clip of Thomas Hickey, captain of the 2008 Canada squad that won gold in the Czech Republic, holding the championship cup was a reminder that Hickey was considered an elite prospect not that long ago. He was the fourth overall pick in the 2007 draft by the Kings, after all.

And the savvy that had him captaining at 19 a roster that included John Tavares, Drew Doughty, P.K. Subban, Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux seems to have helped Hickey persevere through 31/2 seasons in the AHL without a sniff of the big club with Los Angeles.

With three of the Isles' top four defensemen out, Hickey has shown even more of late. He scored the overtime winner to beat the Senators on Tuesday, then made a terrific pass to set up the winner in Ottawa on Thursday, all while playing his heaviest minutes of the season.

"He's always had the hockey sense and the hockey IQ and you see him now playing with a little bit of deception, the way he can change speeds with the puck so easily," Jack Capuano said.

It was Capuano who scouted countless AHL games during the 2012-13 NHL lockout to find players who could bolster the Isles' thin blue line. When the Kings waived Hickey during the mini-training camps in January, the Isles pounced.

"They've given a lot of guys time to grow," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said of the Islanders. "They have guys who you wondered three years ago whether they could play in this league who now are making an impact. They took their lumps for a few years and now they're making everyone take their lumps."

Hickey's toughness is fairly underrated. To be a small defenseman in the NHL today means you have to endure pounding hits from bigger forwards, and it means you have to be tougher than all the big boys.

When Hickey suffered a nasty skate cut during an Isles loss on Oct. 21, there was fear he could miss significant time. As the cut that ran from his mouth to his chin was being stitched up, he begged the Isles equipment staff to put a full shield on his helmet so he could go back in the game. When it couldn't be done in time, Hickey was frustrated, a couple of people in the room said.

As it stands, he's missed one game for health reasons during his three seasons here.

Hickey may not be the biggest talent on the Islanders blue line, but he's shown this past week what he means to the team and its depth.

Grabner shaking off the rust

Michael Grabner scored his first goal yesterday in his second game back from hernia surgery, but we haven't yet seen his usual explosive speed.

"I basically haven't played since March, so each game it's getting a little better," he said. "[My legs] get a little tired at the end of each shift right now, but it was better this game than last game."

Grabner also obviously hasn't been on the bench this season, but the longtime Islander certainly noticed a different feel and tone as the game reached a panic point while the Islanders lost a 3-0 lead.

"It was very different," he said. "Last couple years, there was definitely a, 'Oh, [expletive], here we go again' feeling sometimes. There wasn't anything like that today. There's a lot of confidence there even though we didn't win."

Hitchcock praises Halak

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock had kind words for Jaroslav Halak prior to yesterday's ugly one. Halak was Hitchcock's goaltender for three seasons before the Blues traded Halak for Ryan Miller last February, a split that wasn't exactly harmonious.

"I like Jaro and I thought we had a real good relationship," Hitchcock said. "I see him now and he has a calmness in the net. With a young team, that calmness helps a lot. He doesn't seem to get troubled by anything and when you have that, you can play with a little more risk in your game because you have a goaltender who allows you to get away with it."

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