Matt Moulson and John Tavares have been joined at the hip since they came to the New York Islanders in 2009. It's been a combination that has benefitted both parties -- Tavares has emerged as one of the NHL's top young stars, and Moulson became a three-time 30-goal scorer as his wingman.
The two were apart once in the regular season -- Moulson missed an early April game against the Tampa Bay Lightning with a case of the flu. That's why there were more than a few double takes when Islanders coach Jack Capuano changed his line combinations before Game 2 of New York's Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With his team having scored twice in three games, and not at all in a 5-0 loss in Game 1, Capuano switched left wings on his first two lines, moving Josh Bailey onto a line with Tavares and Brad Boyes while putting Moulson with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo.
The result: Moulson was the game's first star after scoring a goal and assisting on the game-winner in New York's 4-3 victory Friday night.
The switch was an unusual move for Capuano, who made very few non-injury-related changes during the regular season. But with his team facing a two-game deficit against the top-seeded Penguins, he said the time was right for a new look.
"Going down the stretch, [a lineup change] was something that we had been thinking about for a while," Capuano said after practice Saturday at Nassau Coliseum. "There’s not a lot of time when you’re in a series to be very patient. You have to find what’s clicking. Even during the course of a game, if we have to make changes right off the bat, we will.”
Capuano wasn't tipping his hand about whether he'll keep his new lines together when the Islanders play their first home playoff game since 2007 against the Penguins on Sunday (noon ET; NBC, TSN, RDS).
Moulson said it took a few shifts to get used to his new linemates.
"When you play with a line for the whole year, you get to know each other really well,” said Moulson, who had 15 goals and a career-high 29 assists for 44 points in 47 regular-season games -- all on Tavares' left side. “Just getting to know the little tendencies with each guy makes a big difference.”
Moulson and his new linemates combined for the game-winning goal, with Okposo taking a pass from Moulson and firing a shot that caromed off the end boards, hit goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and trickled into the net. Moulson, who went to the front of the net after giving the puck to Okposo, had a bird's-eye view of the game-winner.
“Okie put it off the boards and I tried to get to the net,” Moulson said. “I was hoping it was going to pop out or go to the side, but Fleury hit it, and as I was skating past the net, I could see it trickling past the goal line.”
Moulson wasn't sure if the line alterations were the cause of the Islanders' vast improvement after a poor showing in Game 1, but said he and his teammates knew they had to raise their game.
"I don’t know if that was the sole cause of it, but sometimes a little change is good,” Moulson said Saturday. “I think just knowing how big a game it was, guys played individually a lot better than we did in the first game. I don’t think any of us had really good performances in Game 1, and we wanted to come out and make sure that didn’t happen again.”
Though Bailey didn't have a point, he played 20:39 and was part of a line that had 23 shot attempts and 13 of the Islanders' 42 shots on goal against Fleury. Tavares said his new linemate fit right in.
“It was obviously different playing with Josh, but he brings a lot of creativity and he’s played great for us down the stretch,” he said. “We created some good plays and made ourselves tough to defend. I think everybody up and down the lineup had more scoring chances."