Heading into the NHL’s Stanley Cup Qualifiers, the New York Islanders boasted defensive depth on the blue line that was the class of the league.
It already might be getting tested after just one game.
Islanders head coach Barry Trotz had no update on veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s status for Game 2 of their best-of-five series against the Florida Panthers. The 36-year-old — who just made his way back from getting cut near the eye area with a skate earlier this year — was the recipient of a vicious hit to the head from the shoulder of Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson.
The Islanders had to finish Game 1 with five defensemen, who saw out the team’s 2-1 victory to start their postseason off on the right foot.
“It wasn’t easy. He’s a competitor, he’s a warrior out there. To see him go down…we had to battle,” Islanders defenseman Devon Toews said on Sunday. “Having five [defensemen] is tough. They put a lot of pressure on us and I know a couple of us were out there for long shifts.”
If Boychuk is unable to go, Trotz will have his pick of blue-line talent to help cushion the potential loss. Amongst those choices is veteran Andy Greene — who has extensive postseason experience with the New Jersey Devils — and the 20-year-old Noah Dobson, who is considered to be the next big thing in the Islanders’ ranks.
“The depth will play in if Johnny’s not available,” Trotz said. “It’s next man up… That’s the great thing about competition, once you get in there, you don’t want to get out.”
That Islanders’ defense has been the organization’s calling card under Trotz since he took over two years ago. A shorthanded group at the start of the 2020 calendar year was largely based on the absences of Boychuk and Adam Pelech saw the team spiral down the Eastern Conference standings before squeaking into the playoffs when coronavirus halted play.
For the first time in nearly six months, the Islanders played their prototypical style of play with a full-strength defense on Saturday, but it’s still expected to continue even if Boychuk is back on the shelf.
“We all know we have 10 guys back there who can play,” Toews said. “We’re confident in whoever plays and it’s going to be a struggle to get in the lineup and stay in the lineup.”