Alan Quine's wasn't involved in the Thomas Hickey overtime goal that won Game 3 for the New York Islanders.
But Quine's linemate, Shane Prince, arrived first along with Josh Bailey to form the beginning of the pile to begin the best scene in sports: the celebration of a sudden death home playoff overtime goal. Prince had just come on for Nikolay Kulemin as the beginning of their line change, and Prince would've been next in place of Brock Nelson, who set up Hickey's goal.
Quine joined the mob in time to be the first to greet Thomas Greiss, another guy who wasn't supposed to be playing right now if not for injuries to others.
Lee's injury leg created a void on the wing, which they filled with a center, which created a void at center, which they filled with...an AHLer
Greiss and Quine arriving late to the mob is a good metaphor for their sudden unexpected importance, and for what Quine's doing right here, right now, as a center you don't want to scratch in a lineup populated with five or six natural centers.
That's not what anyone expected as recently as a week ago from the former third- (by Detroit in 2011, but unsigned) and sixth- (by the Isles in 2013) round NHL draft pick. The guy who was in AHL Bridgeport all season long until a callup for the final weekend as the Isles rested players after clinching a playoff spot. The guy whose summer update was about to be, "Yeah, I made it to the NHL for a couple of games. Even scored a goal, off my knee."
A week later he has more NHL playoff games under his belt than regular season games.
It's all happened so fast -- that's how it always goes in the playoffs, where (except for this series) it feels like an eternity between games, and the fast-paced games somehow proceed at what feels like a glacial sequence of a thousand cuts.
But this unexpected turn starts with Anders Lee's injury at the end of the regular season. That opened a spot on the wing, and an idea the Isles coaching staff had been kicking around for a few weeks.
The Core Trio's Last Run Together
The idea: What if we put our three best forwards together on the top line?
Frans Nielsen at wing? Notoriously "underrated" two-way center Frans, on the wing?
Quietly skilled Frans Nielsen, on John Tavares' wing.
The Isles had already experimented late in games, in comeback situations, with a first line of Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Nielsen. It always generated chances. Now there was an interesting opportunity to try it for real, and as their potential swan song.
It worked right away, with that line being the Isles' best in an otherwise overmatched Isles performance in Game 1, a game they won thanks to the sniping of Okposo and Nielsen and the awareness of Tavares.
Turns out, after all this time cycling through bargains and prospects and your occasional Okposo turn as wingers for the franchise captain, maybe the ideal fit was two guys playing for contracts. Two guys playing with the entirety of their NHL careers, all those years toiling for this franchise and helping bringing it back to respectability, fueling their seemingly boundless energy on every shift* in what may be their last run together.
*And yes, it's only been three games. It feels so much longer. See what we mean? Playoffs.
Because of where those three have been, and where they are -- all of it in this uniform -- there aren't three players with more invested in the Islanders' success right now than Nielsen, Tavares and Okposo.
The Strange Ways Opportunities Arrive
But this is about Quine. (No, it's about playoffs, which are about everything until they become nothing, ripped out from under you once your team loses four of seven.)
Lee's broken leg created a void on the wing which they filled with a center, which created a void at center which they filled with...an AHLer who had zero NHL games a week ago.
What the Isles must've suspected was how Quine's steady development in Bridgeport would translate to an Isles speed line. Talk about invested in what happens next? Re-drafts don't often turn out as success stories. The odds here are long, but Quine, a restricted free agent this summer at age 23, suddenly has a chance to improve his own odds on the biggest stage.
Known for speed and agility -- yeah yeah, isn't every offensive prospect? -- it was clear on his (second) draft day that the player who scored over a point per game in his final two years in junior would have to adapt his game to earn a role in the NHL. But that's never a bad bet for a sixth-round pick.
It was a bit under the radar, and those who looked up his AHL stats might've missed it, but only a 15-game injury stint in the middle of this season kept him from leading the Sound Tigers in scoring. That doesn't translate into leading an NHL team in scoring, but it can translate into becoming a useful bottom-sixer if you're game is right.
So the Isles started him in the playoffs at center, between speedster Shane Prince and struggling, where-do-we-fit-him Ryan Strome. All three are part of the 2011 draft class (though again, Quine returned for his master's with the Class of 2013), and all three have something to prove.
Prince, that he's worth way more of a chance than the Ottawa Senators ever gave him.
Strome, that he's much closer to the talent the Isles picked fifth overall than a guy who can't find that talent on a consistent basis in the NHL.
And Quine, whose clock has less time left, but fewer games played than either of those two, to show he belongs here.
The Little Stories that Become Big Stories at Playoff Time
Like Michael Leboff mused in the "Fear and Loathing: Islanders playoff email therapy" exchange with Dan Saraceni:
I think putting Ryan Strome on a line with two guys who need to dig deep on every shift to be successful was a stroke of genius from Capuano and it has Strome playing well. They have my full, undivided attention every time they step on the ice. I'm falling deeply in love with this trio.
Through three games (yes, just three games), it sure looks that way. Every opportunity they buzz with that child-like enthusiasm and abandon that playoff hockey is known for. It's not that Quine and Prince aren't talented, or are punching above their weight -- they arrived as talents, it's just the NHL is a really damn hard league to crack for all but the world's top 0.001 percent of talented hockey players.
Their energetic but disciplined work under the spotlight and the amplified importance of the playoffs seems contagious to Strome. Maybe it will even be contagious to the line they've shown up -- Bailey/Nelson/Kulemin -- as the series gets longer.
And maybe it translates into more league eyes on Quine, and a better opportunity in the years that follow. Who'd have imagined that one week ago?