After a season-ending off day Sunday, the New York Islanders commence with practice and playoff preparation Monday, ahead of Wednesday's Game 1 of their first-round series with the Washington Capitals.
With lots of bodies in camp, how they pick their lineup -- and indeed, how they perform -- depends both on the coaching staff's strategy as well as several injuries. The old hockey saying regarding health is that no one is 100 percent come playoff time, but the Isles have some key players who are, shall we say, "percent" concerns.
Travis Hamonic: During the final week of the season, the Islanders went into full-on playoff "undisclosed injury" mode, but it's pretty clear they are concerned about the Isles defenseman, who Jack Capuano called the Isles' "best player against [the Caps] during their four-game regular season series.
Hamonic suffered what looked like a left knee injury during Friday's 3-1 win over the Penguins. Even if Hamonic plays, you have to wonder about the effect of him being at less than 100 percent. Meanwhile, the Isles recalled Griffin Reinhart from Bridgeport, a possible sign they are looking for another more "stay at home" element...or just a sign that they want a top prospect to be around during the playoffs.
Mikhail Grabovski: Grabovski, a former Capital, has been out since early March with his second concussion of the season. When healthy, he makes a major albeit quieter impact on the strength of the Isles' top nine forwards. He is now practicing with the team, so the outlook is suddenly more optimistic for him. But while if he plays we can assume the head injury has gone through the full protocol, there will still be a question about his general fitness and hockey form.
Frans Nielsen: It's unconfirmed but widely believed that Nielsen has been fighting through the same lower body injury since Feb. 22 against the Canucks. He was "maintenance day"'d on practice days a lot down the stretch, and finally sat out the final three games after appearing to (re?)aggravate something during the shutout of the Sabres on April 4. Like Hamonic and Grabovski, it's a big deal if he is playing but not at his full capacity. He remains their most important center for defensive situations, and is a go-to penalty killer as well.
Casey Cizikas: Speaking of which, the Isles use their fourth line a lot -- including after most goals -- and Cizikas is the constant center there, tied John Tavares for the top faceoff percentage (52.2 percent) on the team. (Cizikas' results are more impressive, however, since it includes 109 faceoffs while shorthanded, when a center has less help at the draw.)
Cizikas isn't listed as an injury, but he went to the dressing room during the season finale after taking a big hit (and arguably boarding) by Jack Johnson. He returned to the game, but this is one to monitor in a "could be fighting through something" way.
Matt Martin: Another fourth-line fixture, Martin took a shot off the leg by Eric Boulton and missed the final three games. As the league's annual hit leader, Martin could've been scratched for any number of accumulated bumps and bruises, but it's something to keep in mind. However, though a constant physical threat, in terms of overall play Martin is easily replaced by a number of forwards like Tyler Kennedy and Colin McDonald.
Michal Neuvirth: Neuvirth's undisclosed injury was announced at Saturday's morning skate, and could be minor or even part of a nice (final?) gesture to get Kevin Poulin one more NHL visit before his birthday. In any case, Neuvirth is the insurance for Jaroslav Halak, so the Isles hope not to have to use him.
Eric Boulton: The resident enforcer has been on IR off and on all season long, but finished the season healthy. He is the longest of longshots to make any playoff lineups, but ... well the playoffs do weird things to coaches and it's probably not completely out of the question that a coaching staff who already constantly talks "battle" and "physical" -- and recently "spark" in reference to Boutlon -- all the time might go to that well after he scored twice during his five April appearances. Like a "Eric Boulton has been placed on IR" announcement, you never know.
Lost in the mix of injuries and related "rest days" down the stretch is the fact the Isles have several lineup options up front and on defense. Brian Strait was suddenly a constant again, at the expense of Calvin de Haan, who replaced Hamonic in the lineup during the finale. De Haan is a better and more reliable possession player and puck handler; Streit possesses more of the "safe" and physical tendencies that Capuano seems to value, particularly during playoff time.
In Newsday's story after Capuano and staff reportedly immersed themselves in season-ending film review, Capuano sounded like his same old, close-to-the-vest self:
"Some people might be surprised by who plays and who doesn't," Capuano said. "The last six periods we played this weekend were a good evaluation tool for us as a staff. Those were playoff-type games, they were physical and we saw some things that should help us decide. And things change quickly, so our lineup for Game 1 may not be our lineup going forward."
One player who was impressive during those final games was Michael Grabner, whose season has been interrupted by injuries and recent illness, beginning in preseason with an abdominal injury that ultimately required surgery. He'd been scratched a lot down the stretch, and some speculate that the speedster is still trying to recover from that initial injury. But any latent injury questions aside, based on recent and historic performance it's hard to imagine why Grabner wouldn't be in the Game 1 lineup...
...unless the opponent and the Isles' stance on playoff hockey has them more worried about "physical battles" and trench warfare.
During the Isles' six-game 2013 playoff series with the Penguins, Strait was selected over the smaller but more mobile Thomas Hickey multiple times. Reinhart's recall (which, again, could just be for internship purposes) also adds to the speculation that the Isles will pick physicality and size over smooth-skating puck-moving options.
But much is to be finalized after practices this week, to say nothing of the speculation that will spread as people watch practice lines and pairings each day
And of course whoever makes the cut, you just hope they are near 100 percent or they'll have the effect of a bad lineup decision anyway.