Thomas Greiss was back in familiar waters Tuesday.
The former Shark spent four years in San Jose, but had yet to play his former team in the two years since. He made the most of the opportunity, turning in a strong 34-save performance as the Islanders won 4-2.
It was a nice win to reel in for Greiss, who improved to 4-1-2 on the season, but Tuesday night was less about sticking it to his former team and more about reaffirming the fact that he’s been a luxury for the Islanders in the early going of the season.
“He’s played extremely well for us,” Kyle Okposo said. “He’s a very athletic goalie, confident back there. He knows what he can do and he’s played really well for us.”
With Jaroslav Halak injured in training camp, Greiss was thrust into the starting role, playing in three of the Islanders’ first four games, including the season opener at Barclays Center. The pressure of starting such an important season for the Islanders didn’t faze the easy-going, even-keeled German. He went 3-0-2 in his first five total games, earning eight of a possible 10 points for the Islanders and allowing Halak to take the time necessary to get healthy.
“He’s played well for us so far,” Halak said “I’ve always said we need two good goalies for a season. It’s a long season and he’s been really good for us. On and off the ice he’s a great guy.”
Halak and Greiss have a good relationship. There’s only one crease for the two of them, but they act more like partners rather than adversaries. They sit next to each other in the locker room at Islanders Iceworks, talking shop and sharing hockey stories.
Coming into a locker room with 20 returning players isn’t an easy task, but according to his teammates, Greiss’ easy-going nature and intense work ethic have made him more than welcome in the room.
“He’s a pretty easy-going guy, really nice guy, works and works extremely hard on the ice in practice,” Okposo said. “That’s something that is very valued as a player. You really like when he’s staying out there and taking extra shots. It’s definitely something we appreciate.”
Growing up in the Bavarian Alps, where ski resorts outnumber hockey rinks by a wide margin, it’s no surprise that Greiss skied competitively growing up. But somewhere between the top of the chairlift and the base of the hill, weaving in and out of downhill gates, Greiss decided that his real passion rested on a different white surface, the ice.
“I skied a lot when I was young,” Greiss said. “I played everything. Soccer in the summer, mountain biking and hockey too. I was too lazy to skate, so I was happy to jump in net. I liked the position, it was fun so I stuck with it.”
The Islanders have had an international flavor over the past few seasons. Frans Nielsen hails from Denmark, while two of the league’s three Austrian players also made stops on Long Island. Going a little further back, the Islanders employed “The Polish Prince” Mariusz Czerkawski, so Greiss’ German heritage fits in with the other Islanders from non-traditional hockey countries.
Like his fellow Europeans, Greiss largely grew up outside the reach of the NHL, though he didn’t feel like he was missing out. Greiss’ exposure to hockey was in the German leagues and his idols were his hometown goalies. He maintains that he’s always enjoyed playing a lot more than watching, anyways.
“In Germany sometimes there’s an NHL highlight show, but not even that. I just liked German hockey,” Greiss said. “There are a couple die-hard hockey fans, but overall, Dirk Nowitzki is huge, everyone knows the soccer players, but not too many people know the hockey players.”
It is possible that some Germans know Greiss better from the German national team, as Greiss donned black, red and yellow before ever playing an NHL or AHL game.
“Playing in the Olympics, those are my favorite hockey memories,” Greiss said. “It’s pretty cool being on that stage. It’s a great experience, and especially playing against Canada in Vancouver, that was a lot of fun.”
His first Olympics were the 2006 games in Torino. His first NHL game – with the Sharks – came two years later after working his way up from AHL Worcester. He played 16 games in the 2009-10 season, but when San Jose signed Antti Niemi to a four-year deal – fresh off a Stanley Cup at the time – Greiss was the odd man out and spent the year playing for Brynas IF in the Swedish Hockey League.
It wasn’t the easiest time in Greiss’ career, as he spoke of some of the oddities of playing hockey in northern Sweden, but it was a necessary stop on his journey back to the NHL.
“I didn’t enjoy that year too much,” Greiss said. “But I learned from it and it makes you appreciate playing over here.”
He played two more seasons with San Jose, but then moved twice, playing on a pair of one-year deals with the Arizona Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s signed for two seasons with the Islanders, a prospect he seems to like.
“It’s a really good group of guys,” Greiss said. “I like that it’s a young team. Sometimes [as a young team] you make mistakes, but we make it up by having lots of energy, youth, wanting to play and having fun out there.”
Tuesday was one of those fun nights. Greiss got his win over his former team and in the process, continued to win over his new one.