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Intangibles make Nielsen key to Isles' second line

by John Kreiser
It's a measure of Frans Nielsen's high standards that he didn't feel a performance good enough to earn him second star honors on Wednesday night was one of his better games.
Nielsen sent two writers into gales of laughter when he told them "I thought I played like (crap)" after setting up three goals to help the Islanders beat Minnesota 4-1, putting a crimp into the Wild's playoff hopes.
Jack Capuano, the Isles' interim coach, wasn't complaining.
"Maybe that's a good thing," he said. "The coaches think he played pretty good."
A few minutes later, after the rest of the media caravan arrived, Nielsen added that, "I don't feel I played my best game of the year, for sure. I was just lucky to be in the right spot."
The 26-year-old Danish center is in the right spot most of the time, and it has nothing to do with luck. Nielsen does the little things that you have to look hard to see -- he gets his stick in passing lanes, gets out on shooters at the point, is usually the first forward back into his own zone, is almost never caught out of position and generally makes it difficult for opponents, especially opposing centers, to get a good scoring chance.
"I want to make sure, first of all, that I'm solid all the way up the ice defensively," he said. "I want to help offensively too, but I don't feel I have to go out and score every night."
No danger of that. Nielsen has just 8 goals, though a League-leading five have come shorthanded. He's also the only player in the NHL to score two penalty-shot goals this season, and is one of the NHL's most dangerous players in shootouts. More impressively, on a team that's been outscored by 31 goals at even strength, Nielsen is plus-8, second on the team to linemate Michael Grabner's plus-10.
"He's one of those guys who's obviously reliable," Capuano said. "He's putting up points night in and night out for us. You can't lose sight of what he does for us defensively, on the penalty kill and what he does in his own zone."
But Nielsen has been generating more offense as the season has progressed -- Wednesday's performance gives him 14 points in his last 13 games, pretty good numbers for a player whose first thought is keeping the puck out of his own net.
Nielsen and Grabner had formed an effective duo, especially killing penalties, but the addition of Kyle Okposo after the 2006 first-rounder returned from shoulder surgery in January has added a dash of grit to go along with one of the fastest twosomes in the NHL.
"Kyle is a leader and unbelievable player," Nielsen said. "He fits great, me and Grabs."
Together, they've given the Islanders an effective second line, something they haven't had in a long time. The Isles were 28th in offense at midseason; they're now tied for 14th with 174 non-shootout goals -- and Nielsen's line is a big reason for the improvement. Grabner's 10 goals earned him rookie of the month honors for February, and Nielsen was a big reason for Grabner's success.
"His offensive ability is underrated," defenseman Andrew MacDonald said. "I think he's one of the best passers on our team. I don't think we could do much without him."
Nielsen's defense-first proclivities and the fact that he's playing for a team that hasn't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007 combine to assure that he doesn't get a lot of notice around the League. His teammates are another story.
"He's one of those guys that sometimes slips under the radar," MacDonald said. "But he definitely doesn't go unnoticed within our room. He's definitely a leader on the ice. He's not the most vocal guy, but his play speaks for itself."
Nielsen is as willing to pass on credit as he is to pass the puck when someone suggested that he's becoming a star.
"We got some goals, got some confidence and started to play good out there," he said. "Grabs and Okie are stars.
"I don't think I play like a star. I just work hard, try never to get outworked out there. Just do my best."
Nielsen may not be willing to blow his own horn, but his teammates are more than willing to do it for him.
"Nielsen's been unbelievable," said forward Blake Comeau, who turned a perfect setup from Nielsen into one of his two goals on Wednesday. "He's one of the best defensive players. I think he's one of the most underrated players in the League, and it's good to see him get rewarded."
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