UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- New York Islanders forward Matt Martin splayed himself out in front of a close-range one-timer from Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson, sacrificing his body to bail out his goaltender and robbing the Caps of a gimme goal in Game 2.
After he got up, feeling the effects of absorbing a puck to the midsection, teammate Johnny Boychuk was the first to come over.
That was a game-changer, he whispered in Martin's ear.
It's those small, subtle moments that illustrate how instrumental of a leader the 31-year-old Boychuk has become for a young, relatively inexperienced Islanders team.
Bust your butt on a lengthy shift, and he’s right there to pat you on the back. Do some of the dirty work in the corner, he’ll be the one nodding in approval. Those might seem like little details to others, but Boychuk will let you know that they don't go unnoticed.
“Any time you make a small play like that, he’s the first one to come over and let you know,” Martin told ESPN.com.
And it’s not always words of encouragement, either. With veteran experience and a Stanley Cup ring comes the right to hold other players accountable, too. Boychuk is not afraid to do that.
“But he’ll do it in a funny way,” Thornton told ESPN.com via text message. “If one of their stars wasn’t working hard enough, he would say something along the lines of ‘Ya, if I was as good as you, I wouldn’t stay out and do extra either.'"
He’s half-joking, Thornton explained, but he gets his point across nonetheless.
That leadership is precisely what the Islanders envisioned when general manager Garth Snow made the bold move to acquire Boychuk via trade with a salary-cap-strapped Bruins team back in October, just days before the regular season opened. Snow added both Boychuk and former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy on the same day, vastly improving the Islanders back end and infusing it with a few bona-fide blueliners who add a certain steadiness lacking in previous seasons.
The move to land the tandem was one heralded as Snow’s finest hour in his tenure as GM, though many remained skeptical Boychuk would stay on Long Island with his status as an impending unrestricted free agent.
Lo and behold, Boychuk, who finished the season with nine goals and 35 points for the Islanders, inked a seven-year, $42 million deal, cementing his future with the organization. The selling point? The team’s future with a promising, youthful core.
“There were so many young guys and such good players,” Boychuk told ESPN.com of what ultimately swayed his decision. “It was a team that was going to be good for a long time.”
Among those up-and-comers is Boychuk’s fellow blueliner Travis Hamonic, the 24-year-old Manitoba native who has already emerged as one of the team’s anchors on defense. So when Hamonic went down with a lower-body injury in the penultimate game of the regular season, Boychuk’s role and responsibilities only increased heading into he 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs.
As did everyone's appreciation for what Boychuk brings to the lineup.
“He’s a veteran guy, a great leader on and off the ice,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said Monday after the team’s practice. “Without Travis around, [No.] 55 gives you the element of physicality that you need and that’s what No. 3 [Hamonic] brought to our team, too. So you really appreciate the way he plays, how hard he plays and how desperate he plays. We’re really going to need that as the series moves forward.”
No time was that more apparent than in Boychuk’s last shift of the second period Sunday afternoon in the Isles’ 2-1 overtime win in Game 3. Boychuk blocked three straight Alex Ovechkin shots in a critical penalty-killing effort with time winding down, and when Ovechkin again had the puck on his stick at the left circle with just seconds left on the clock, Boychuk slapped the puck away from the Capitals superstar with his outstretched stick, all while laying on his belly. He was credited with a takeaway.
“More or less, in a nutshell, that’s what he does,” Martin told ESPN.com. “It’s not easy to throw yourself in front of that shot. And it’s not easy doing it time and time again.”
Boychuk has been key in neutralizing Ovechkin and the Capitals' top line, containing the five-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner to just one goal in three games. Put plainly, the Islanders would not be up 2-1 in the series without Boychuk's stellar play.
“You can see he’s played in a lot of playoff games -- his experience, his ability to contribute in all areas of the game and certainly playing a lot against [No.] 8,” Isles captain John Tavares said. “It’s a tough job, and he’s been doing a great job for us.”
Matching up against Ovechkin, who has also played the past two games with dynamic playmaking center Nicklas Backstrom, is a top assignment and a daunting one, but it’s also one Boychuk takes pride in doing.
After all, that’s why he’s here.
“It’s playoffs. You have to shut down the top line on the other team and the top players. If you don’t, you’re going to be going home,” Boychuk said. “And no one wants to go home.”