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Hamonic could return during first round

by Brian Compton / New York Islanders

The moment New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic collided with Columbus Blue Jackets forward Scott Hartnell during a game on March 31, only one feeling was going through Hamonic's mind.

How can this be happening again?

Hamonic, one of the Islanders' top three defensemen, missed the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs after spraining his MCL in the second-to-last game of the regular season. New York lost to the Washington Capitals in a physical seven-game series.

But Hamonic was smiling after the Islanders practiced Tuesday, two days before they play the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference First Round series at BB&T Center (8 p.m. ET; MSG+, FS-F, CNBC, SN, TVA Sports 2). It's not a lock Hamonic will play Thursday, but it appears he'll be back well before the series concludes.

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"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some déjà vu there, certainly," Hamonic said. "But the prognosis was better than we originally anticipated. All you can do is get to work and try and get better as fast as you can. I think that's your only option.

"I felt good. I've been skating for a handful of days. It's [the] coaches' decision if they feel I'm ready to go. But I feel fine."

The Islanders will practice in New York again Wednesday before boarding a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. If Hamonic can show continued progress, there's a chance he will play in Game 1.

"You don't want to rush guys back," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "I want him to go through some agility drills and see how he feels. But he practiced today, so [Wednesday] if he has a good day, it's something we'll think about for Thursday."

That's terrific news for the Islanders, who will need their ice-time leader (23:49 per game) if they plan on advancing to the second round for the first time since 1993. Hamonic's return also would alleviate pressure off the top pair of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, and provide more balance on the blue line.

"He plays a lot of minutes and he's a good defenseman," Boychuk said. "We need him to come back and play and play like he can and he will. It will give us a big boost."

One could make a case the Islanders would have advanced last postseason with a healthy Hamonic, considering they blew a two-goal lead in Game 2 in Washington. But the series went the distance, and all a helpless Hamonic could do was hope for the best.

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"It was probably one of the most frustrating things that I've had to do, sit there and watch," Hamonic said. "I tried to cheer the guys on as much as I [could]. I knew that if I had an opportunity to get back in the playoffs that I would try to play as hard as I can. I'm just excited to try and keep getting better every day. We have a couple of more days until the first game, so hope for the best."

"Obviously, he's really led us back there," Islanders captain John Tavares said. "He plays in all situations and plays against a lot of the teams' top guys. He just brings a lot of different elements that are very hard to replace.

"It's good to see him out there moving well and feeling good. Hopefully that's the case. Certainly we missed him last year, so it would be great to have him."

The Islanders reached 100 points for a second consecutive season for the first time in more than 30 years, but the real test begins Thursday. Hamonic believes the pieces are in place for New York to go deep this spring.

"I think that we're really confident in our group," said Hamonic, who had five goals and 16 assists in 72 games. "I think that certainly since I've been here, this is the deepest we've been at all three positions. We're excited about our chances. It's a long year. It's a grind. Everything restarts fresh and anything can happen. We're just excited to get going and try to work day by day, game by game.

"I'm excited to be a part of it this year. Keep pushing hard and try to be ready to go."

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