Andy Graziano, SNY.TV Twitter
How fitting that, on a night when the Islanders chose to honor all former and current members of the military, even those who wear collars and run on four legs, veteran Johnny Boychuk -- one of the team's most visible supporters of the armed forces -- stood out once again.
The 33-year old defenseman from Edmonton, now in his ninth NHL season and fourth with the Islanders, was a bit of a late-bloomer, not breaking into the league in a full-time capacity until he was 26, playing 51 games with the Bruins.
Before the start of the 2014-15 season, then-Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli needed to dump some cash to help out an inflating salary cap situation. Enter Islanders GM Garth Snow, who acquired the veteran defenseman at a time when his team needed one in the worst way, for two second-round picks and a conditional third rounder.
Immediately following that deal would be the one that gave New York 26-year old Nick Leddy, who has become Boychuk's defensive partner, the pairing now etched in stone (taking out the horrible experiment of splitting them up at the start of the 2016-17 season by former head coach Jack Capuano).
Boychuk was the ring-leader behind the Islanders' effort to collect money -- they garnered just shy of $20,000 from each and every teammate -- to send military members to Thursday night's game. And his locker is adorned with patches he has been given and collected over the years from the various branches of service. "They do so much for us each and every day, risking their lives for our freedoms and us, personally, our right to play this game," Boychuk said. "It's the least we could do to send them to a game, let them have some fun to show our appreciation."
It's that type of off-ice leadership that the grizzly, now shaved head of Boychuk bears on a daily basis. Taking a young defense, with Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield, and even to a slightly lesser effect, Thomas Hickey, and molding them into every day NHL defensemen, a position that is widely considered one of the hardest in the sport to learn and master.
After averaging just 18 points per season in Boston, Boychuk has upped his offensive output with the added responsibility and ice-time, to 32 points since making the move. In what, self admittedly, was a down year in 2016-17, when he was only able to play 66 games due to injury and saw his 5v5 corsi possession numbers dip to 49 percent, he has rebounded in a big way since 2017-18 got started, with six points in 18 games and a 52.2 percent rating.
Known for his big, booming slap shot, Boychuk has not had the opportunity to play much on the power play since arriving, but that hasn't stopped him from launching an average of 170 shots per season from the blueline, more critically at even strength. And his prowess in that department has him on pace to shatter that mark this season, with 53 shots in his 18 games, a pace of 241.
Thursday night, he followed up the play beautifully as Casey Cizikas picked up a loose puck off the bench in center ice and roared into the Hurricanes zone, the game tied at four late in the third period. After Cizikas spun and slipped to the ice, he was able to slide the puck to Boychuk, himself flying into the offensive zone, and the blueliner stepped into a slap shot that beat Scott Darling cleanly for the game winning goal. Yet, all he talked about afterwards was defensive breakdowns.
"It was a good win for us, but the second period was very sloppy," Boychuk said. "We weren't careful with the puck and made some really bad decisions to let them back in the game. It was 3-1 after the first, but we let them back in. It shouldn't happen. We had to (the team putting the second period behind them). They did a good job capitalizing on their opportunities, but we need to be better."
When finally getting around to the goal, he quipped with his trademark sense of humor: "I was yelling at Casey the whole way up. He turned and went to pass, but fell. Actually turned out to be a pretty nice play. Puck laid flat and someone, I'm not sure who, made a good net drive, took away the eyes (of the goaltender). I just had to hit that far side." When asked if his shot was traveling at 100mph, Boychuk added, "Probably 65. I learned how to hit the net."
Leadership. Commitment. Will to win. A Stanley Cup ring. Those are all synonymous with Boychuk, who has embodied the team spirit just as much as, if not the most, of anyone in the dressing room.
Standout rookie Mathew Barzal told Newsday's Arthur Staple postgame: "We were snoozing a bit in the second, but we have some great leaders in here. They told us we needed to wake up and we were sharp in the third. You could feel it that first shift of the third. We came out strong, really raised our level."
I'll give you three guesses who one of those leaders was. You should only need one.