A key member of the defense returned to the lineup for the Islanders, just in time for the final stretch leading into the postseason. Brian Strait, who missed 29 games with a fractured ankle suffered in the Feb. 18 game against Philadelphia, was on the ice playing valuable minutes during the team’s 5-4 shootout victory Saturday over the Winnipeg Jets.
Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano gave the 25-year-old defenseman high marks for his play, which included 15:56 of ice time, a shot on goal, a blocked shot and a plus-1 rating.
“To get him back in there against a good Winnipeg team – obviously it was a fast-paced game – I thought he handled himself quite well,” Capuano said. “He defended well and he moved the puck well. His skating was good. He was a little jumpy with the puck, just because it was his first game back, but overall we were real pleased.”
After Strait’s injury in February, he was unable to put any weight on his ankle, focusing his rehab strictly on upper-body for four weeks before he could begin walking again.
“I wasn’t able to do much at all,” Strait said. “I was laid up and couldn’t put any weight on it. That was the toughest part. Mentally, all you want to do in that situation is play, and it’s tough when you can’t. But you’ve just got to deal with the situation and work through it as hard as possible to get back quickly.”
Strait stayed motivated, working one-on-one with the Islanders Training staff every day for almost nine weeks. He finally was cleared to strengthen his ankle and skated for the first time just two weeks ago. From there, Strait’s transition was sped up because he hadn’t allowed his conditioning to slip at any point during the healing process.
“The training staff and the strength guys did an unbelievable job to help me get back,” Strait said. “The first four weeks it was all upper-body. After that, rehab was pretty simple. It was focused on movement and balance, and I got into squatting and my normal workout routine.”
The Waltham, MA native, who signed a three-year contract extension earlier this season, is returning to the lineup stronger than ever.
“Throughout the course of the season, sometimes you do lose some strength as far as what you can do in the weight room,” Strait said. “Unfortunately I was in the weight room more than I usually am during the season, but the positive is that it really helped me strength-wise.”
The Islanders have benefited from their blue-line depth this season, something that was a big question mark leading into Training Camp in January. The preseason pickups of Strait, Radek Martinek, Joe Finley and Thomas Hickey, as well as the additions of Matt Carkner and Lubomir Visnovsky last summer gave the Islanders nine defenseman who have all filled valuable roles.
And Saturday was Strait’s turn to step in. As he was for much of the first month of the 2012-13 season, Strait was paired with Mark Streit on the blue line. The Islanders captain had one of the best views of how his defense partner fared in his first game back.
“Saturday was a playoff-type of game,” Streit said. “It was very intense, physical, fast, and he did really well. It wasn’t necessarily the easiest game to come back from injury, but he did really well and it was great to have him back in the lineup.”
Strait said the speed of the game was something that requires an adjustment period. As the season has drawn on, the pace of games has increased. Teams are no longer feeling each other out as they usually do in the opening weeks – now every night feels like a playoff game.
“Any time you’re out for that long, the speed of the game is going to be quick, no matter what time of the season it is,” Strait said. “But it was a playoff atmosphere, playoff-type speed. It was obviously a lot quicker than watching from the press box.”
With three games remaining in the season, the Islanders are in position to clinch their first postseason berth in six years. The Islanders are in the driver’s seat right now because of their depth in the lineup. Capuano hasn’t made a ruling on who will be in or out of Tuesday’s matchup at Carolina, but maybe that’s a good problem to have.
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