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Islanders defense raising game in Hamonic's absence

by Brian Compton / NHL.com

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- When defenseman Travis Hamonic sustained an undisclosed injury in the second-to-last game of the regular season, the rest of the New York Islanders blue line knew it would have to step it up a notch in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Brian Strait, who was shuffled in and out of the lineup during the season, has arguably been one of the Islanders' best defensemen through the first three games of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals, which continues Tuesday with Game 4 at Nassau Coliseum (7:30 p.m. ET; USA, SN360, TVA Sports 2, CSN-DC, MSG+).

The Islanders lead the best-of-7 series 2-1.

Strait was playing alongside Hamonic at the time of the injury and has since been paired with Calvin de Haan. Strait doesn't have a point in the series but he's helped limit a potent Capitals offense to one goal in two of the three games.

There is no timetable for Hamonic's return.

"It's tough because I was playing with him at the time and we were playing really well together," Strait said Tuesday. "More from a team standpoint, the things that he does physically and against top players, it's something that we miss. But I think everybody's stepped up pretty well and done a pretty decent job so far. I think we've got to keep progressing and getting better."

With Hamonic out of the lineup, the Islanders are missing a two-way defenseman who can play a physical game. Strait won't be leaned on to contribute much offensively, but he was credited with three blocked shots Sunday, when the Islanders regained the lead in the series with a 2-1 overtime win at the Coliseum.

Strait set the tone at the start of the series too, when he knocked Capitals forward Jason Chimera to the ice in front of the Islanders net.

Strait, asked if he's elevated his game since the start of the playoffs, said, "I think everybody has to. It's funny … I got a text from my father the other night asking how Game 2 went (a 4-3 loss in Washington) and how I played individually. I'm like, 'Well, I don't think anybody played well.' I definitely didn't play to the best of my ability and we lost. That's what happens if you don't have every guy going every night … you're not going to be able to be successful in the playoffs. We've had two games where everybody's been going, and that's been great.

"Everybody wants to pick their game up physically, it's the playoffs. We talk in here every day about how important it is to finish checks. It only helps us and I think we've been doing a decent job of it."

The Islanders were going to enter the playoffs with Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk as their only right-handed shooters. Now, it's Boychuk and five left-handed shots. Strait, who has played the right point in the past, has been especially helpful in this area without Hamonic.

"I think Brian has played real well for us," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "When you've got five lefties in the lineup and only one right shot, that changes a lot, probably more than what you guys think. I think all our D have done a great job without [Hamonic] in the lineup. They've played hard, they've played heavy games, they've had good gaps … everything that we've asked them to do, they've done."

Strait said, "Somebody's got to play the right (side). I've been fortunate enough that I was able to play a little bit of it early in the year and I got comfortable with it. The transition back from left to right has been better this time around than it was last time. It's a work in progress. I still have to get out there in practice and work on neutral-zone transitions and things like that that can help me."

If Boychuk wasn't the leader of the Islanders defense prior to Hamonic's injury, he has clearly emerged into that role over the past week. The veteran said he's been pleased with Strait's overall game in the playoffs but also credited fellow de Haan, Lubomir Visnovsky, Thomas Hickey and Nick Leddy for how they've played the past three games.

"Everybody's elevated their game, it's not just Brian," Boychuk said. "… It's a team game and everybody's picked up their game and it's nice to see."

Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL

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