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Capuano has found right linemates for Tavares

Islanders captain, Nielsen, Okposo combine for seven points in Game 1 win against Panthers

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

SUNRISE, Fla. -- New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano tried everything. It had to be keeping him up at night, the task of finding the right linemates for his franchise player.

John Tavares didn't have the regular season he would have liked. Some thought he was capable of getting 100 points after coming within seconds of winning the Art Ross Trophy last season, only to have Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn swipe it out of his hands.

One by one, Capuano tried to find the right mix. Tavares with Brock Nelson and Kyle Okposo. Tavares with Anders Lee and Ryan Strome. Tavares with Nikolay Kulemin and Josh Bailey. Tavares with Shane Prince and Strome.

Nothing worked.

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm1: Tavares fires home Okposo's feed

Last month, Capuano threw up his hands. He put his best defensive center, Frans Nielsen, a player he's entrusted at that position since the two first worked together with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League 10 years ago, on Tavares' left wing and Okposo on the right.

One month later, that line remains intact. On Thursday, it combined for seven points in the a 5-4 win against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round at BB&T Center.

Game 2 is Friday at BB&T Center (7:30 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN360, TVA Sports 3, SUN, MSG+).

"We went through a stretch about three or four weeks ago we just figured we would try to load up on one line," Capuano said. "We discussed it. It's tough for me because since I've coached Frans Nielsen, he's always been a center. But I just think having Brock in the middle, [Josh Bailey] can play the middle, [Alan] Quine now can play the middle, and obviously Casey [Cizikas], so we've got some guys that can do it. We wanted to try it and it worked well for us the last two or three weeks of the season."

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm1: Okposo beats Luongo from the circle

Nielsen admitted he was hesitant when he learned of the move. After all, this is a player who should be in the Selke Trophy conversation year after year as one of the NHL's top defensive forwards. Always the good solider, Nielsen didn't ask questions. He's certainly not asking them now.

"They didn't tell me anything, they just put a paper up on the wall with the lines," Nielsen said. "I saw my number on the left side. I haven't played wing in probably 15 years. But I think we're doing a good job."

Okposo, shuffled between the top two lines all season, has found a home again alongside Tavares. Three days after his son, Odin, entered the world, Okposo helped the Islanders move within three wins of a trip to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1993.

"I thought about it a little bit after," Okposo said when asked about what his goal at 2:33 of the third period meant for the latest addition to his family. "I scored the game after my daughter was born (in 2014), so it was cool to get one for him."

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm1: Strome nets a rebound past Luongo

Okposo's goal, which was made possible after Tavares stripped Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell of the puck in the offensive zone, gave New York its first lead of the game, 4-3. Strome put the Islanders ahead by two less than four minutes later, a cushion that lasted all of 55 seconds.

But led by the top line and goaltender Thomas Greiss (42 saves), the Islanders hung on.

"I think we've been pretty good since we got put together," Okposo said. "Those two are easy players to play with and terrific players. They're extremely smart, and we just try and read and react off each other and try and push each other. I wasn't as sharp the first period and a half, and those guys pushed me. I was pushing myself to try and work through that. We've got a lot of confidence in each other."

The chemistry is no surprise to Tavares, who has consistently praised Nielsen and Okposo, the two longest tenured Islanders, ever since New York used the No. 1 pick at the 2009 NHL Draft on the player who has emerged as captain. 

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm1: Nielsen buries Tavares' feed on PP

"I think you look at their body of work since we've all been here as Islanders, great players, consistent players," Tavares said. "They hound the puck, compete, great hockey sense. Frans is arguably the best two-way player in our League. He does so much out there that goes unrecognized. I'm just a beneficiary of their hard work, and you try and do the right things and obviously make plays when they're there.

"We can read off one another; there are shifts I play on the left, there's shifts [Nielsen] plays on the left. He's such a good two-way player, he can play anywhere. You can throw him back on defense probably. I think we just try and read off one another and I think we trust our game and doing the right things."

On a night when maybe the Islanders didn't play their best collectively, their top line carried the load and found them a way to win.

Video: NYI@FLA, Gm1: Nelson wrists one past Luongo

That's what top lines do.

"This is the time of year, watching as a kid, watching teams compete for the Cup. We're motivated and we want it as bad as anybody," Tavares said. "(But) it's one game. We've got to put it behind us and move on to the next one. I think that's what we've learned from the past. This what you play for all year, so you want to bring it when it matters most and play hard and give everything for your team."

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