Islanders hope broken sticks don't break their hearts

The Capitals tallied the Game 4 winner after Islanders captain John Tavares' stick broke. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- At this point, New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano seems ready to throw his hands up in the air, wondering in futility what he did to draw the ire of the hockey gods.

After Tuesday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series, he was downright baffled by the bad luck. It wasn’t just the frustration of a freak play that led to Nicklas Backstrom’s game-winner, it was that this has become a disturbing trend for the Islanders. Game 5 is Thursday night in Washington.

After captain John Tavares’ stick broke while taking a defensive zone draw in the final sequence of Tuesday’s match, Backstrom recognized his opponent was at a disadvantage and fired on net, a seeing-eye shot that beat goaltender Jaroslav Halak and tied the series 2-2.

Broken sticks happen all the time, for every player and every team, but this was the third time this series that a broken stick in the defensive zone resulted in a goal for the opposition.

“It’s very frustrating because the guys work so hard to do the right things,” Capuano said following his team’s optional practice Wednesday. “It’s tough.”

Capuano only hopes three goals don’t add up to be the difference in a tightly contested series between two well-matched teams.

“Certainly, it has had an effect up to this point,” he said.

Twice in the Islanders’ Game 2 loss, broken sticks led to Capitals goals. Matt Martin had his stick snapped, as did Kyle Okposo.

“It sucks,” Martin said. “But that’s hockey.”

If it’s just an occasional occurrence, you chalk it up to bad luck. If it keeps happening, it becomes an increasing concern.

Which brings us to the case of Tavares, who seems to encounter the problem more than most. Keep in mind, Tavares is not going to throw his stick brand -- CCM -- under the bus. After all, he has an endorsement deal that one source estimated pays him $150,000 annually. So when asked about the issues, Tavares took a shrug-and-so-be-it attitude.

“It’s just part of the game,” he said. “You try to do the best job you can with the circumstances. It is what it is. You just have to deal with those situations when they [arise].”

There are plausible reasons his sticks break more than others, reasons that have nothing to do with the brand and make of the stick itself.

For one, the elite center is on the ice a lot -- he led all Islanders forwards with 20:40 total ice time per game in the regular season -- and second, he’s a huge target for opposing teams. The 24-year-old phenom, who finished second in the league scoring race with 38 goals and 86 points, is likely to garner more slashes and swipes than the average player, with defenders trying to impede his ability to get to the net and find his shot.

Unlike the days of wooden sticks, players now are bigger, stronger and faster than ever, yet they still desire the lighter models of composite sticks. And with that design comes vulnerabilities. A chip resulting from a blocked shot or a slash compromises the integrity of the stick, which can lead it to break.

“We're trying to balance the lightweight feel and the performance of the stick,” Sean Williams, vice president of sales and marketing for Reebok and CCM, told ESPN.com Wednesday afternoon. “To do that leaves them susceptible to durability issues, especially in a heated environment.”

Williams is, of course, talking about the playoffs, when real estate becomes even harder to come by and the nastiness and physicality escalates with each game. He said a spike in stick breakage is standard during the postseason across all brands.

“Once you've got people in the playoffs, slashes on sticks happen a lot more,” Williams said.

Tavares' flex -- the stiffness of the stick -- is a 95, about average for forwards and in line with the general rule that flex should be close to half a player's body weight (Tavares is listed at 209 pounds.)

Buzz Deschamps, a former Long Island Ducks player who worked in the stick industry for almost four decades, said he notices that most of Tavares’ sticks seem to be breaking in the same spot. At least a few observers have pointed out Tavares' tendency to break sticks in the faceoff circle, leading some to believe that the nature of his stance might be a contributing factor.

“He leans on his stick pretty hard, and you can see that on the faceoffs because he's really bearing down,” Deschamps said.

One NHL centerman, asked about Tavares' misfortune and his tendency to break them in the faceoff circle, said he's not entirely surprised considering the force he exerts on his stick. The player said the first time he took a draw against Tavares, one of the first things he noticed was how much forearm strength he possessed.

"He's just really strong through there," the player told ESPN.com. "He's really strong on his stick."

Unfortunately for the Islanders and Tavares, none of these factors are going to change anytime soon.

Tavares is known to be meticulous about his sticks. He places them in certain spots throughout the day -- his game stick is always housed in the trainer’s room -- and is consistent in his taping regimen, but he’s not obsessive, as many other players can be. If someone accidentally trips over his sticks or touches them, Tavares won’t have a meltdown. That is not his nature.

But given how players remain devoted and particular to their specific makes and models of stick, and with the financial incentives of brand loyalty, don’t expect Tavares to make any changes.

And considering this has been a season of offensive career highs, Tavares has to be reluctant to mess with what has (mostly) been a good thing.

As Deschamps noted with a chuckle, Tavares probably wasn’t upset with the performance of his stick when he notched the deciding goal in overtime of Game 3.

“There was nothing wrong with the stick when he shot the puck from the goal line, and it went off the goalie’s back for the winner,” Deschamps said.