In Defense of Jack Capuano

Mar 20, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; New York Islanders head coach

Jack Capuano

talks to the referee during their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. The Islanders beat the Maple Leafs 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Astoria, NY – Since you clicked on the link to this piece, I’m assuming one of two things about you: 1) you’re my mother; or 2) you’re “hate-reading” this column because there’s no way anyone would try defend what New York Islanders head coach Jack Capuano did to his team’s lineup last night.

If you fall into the first category (hi Mom), then you probably don’t know who Jack Capuano is. If you’re one of the people in the second category, you probably reacted like this to the news that the oft-scratched Marty Reasoner would center the Isles’ fourth line in Game 1 of their playoff series against the no. 1-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.

Even if you gave the I’ve-seen-enough-so-I’m-outta-here reaction, I’m betting that you still watched the game last night, if only so you could mock Cappy’s decision to start Reasoner in a game for the first time since Apr. 4.

(By time the game was over, you probably pointed to Reasoner’s game-high 17 penalty minutes  and 50 percent faceoff win rate as proof that he brought nothing to the table. Like a busboy, he only took away.)

Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and today, Cappy’s decision to start Reasoner in a pivotal game doesn’t look like a smart one. And I’d bet that given what he knows now, Capuano would like to have that choice back (even if he’d never admit it publicly).

I’m also betting that we’ll see some more tinkering with the lineup in advance of Game 2.

That being said, Isles Nation is reacting like Cappy starting Reasoner was the equivalent of the head coach actively torpedoing his team’s chances against the Penguins. (What’s he thinking? Is he on the take? Would it be weird if Garth Snow fired him before the team took the ice?)

Unpopular opinion alert: contrary to popular belief, Capuano wants his team to win games.

And this season, the Isles won games with him at the helm, not in spite of him being there. (Being second on the franchise’s all-time coaching wins list has to count for something.)

Let me be clear: I’m not actively supporting Cappy’s decision to replace Jesse Joensuu with Marty Reasoner last night, although I can understand his thought process behind the lineup change.

Joensuu is a playmaker; he’s a big body that can fight to the front of the net and cause problems for the opposing defense. He can also get his own shot from almost anywhere in the offensive zone (7 GP, 15 SOG), which makes him a sorely needed scoring threat on the Islanders’ bottom line.

However, Reasoner has seen postseason action before – regardless of what year it was when he was last in a playoff game. Capuano knew he had a young team with very little postseason experience last night, and tried to counteract that with what little veteran presence he had at his disposal.

Cappy wasn’t looking to add offensive firepower, he wanted a seasoned player who could win defensive-zone draws and potentially steady the ship if the Isles ran into a buzz saw in front of a hostile crowd. But as it turned out, Reasoner’s presence couldn’t help a team that definitely looked like it was playing its first playoff game in seven years.

But, ‘Reasoner getting the start’ and ‘the Islanders losing’ is not a causal relationship. It’s inaccurate to place the blame solely on Capuano or on Reasoner for the loss.

The Islanders did not play a good team game last night, and that statement applied to every guy in a white jersey. Brian Strait took a bad penalty early in the first period that led to a Pittsburgh power play goal; Matt Martin had a giveaway and missed a defensive assignment in front of his own net that allowed Pascal Dupuis to score one of his two goals; and the entire team – with the possible exception of the Josh BaileyFrans NielsenKyle Okposo line – looked flat-footed from the opening faceoff.

The Isles top line fell victim to the pressure of playoff hockey as well.

John Tavares spent much of his ice time stapled to the boards or being harassed by two and three Pittsburgh players; he never had the chance to get going. Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes didn’t offer much in the way of offensive support, firing countless shots over the head of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury or wide of the net altogether.

As the saying goes: win as a team, lose as a team.

We always knew playing this series against the Penguins would be tough. They have the offensive skill, the defensive presence and the type of experience that would cause problems for any team in NHL. Many of the Penguins players have the Stanley Cup rings to prove it.

A single loss – even accounting for the manner in which the Isles failed to respond to adversity on the road – doesn’t mean that the Islanders are going home. There’s still plenty of hockey to play, now that the postseason jitters are (hopefully) gone.

I can appreciate the difficulty of situation that the Islanders are in – believe me, I’m right there with you. I don’t like to see this team lose and I think we’ve all waited long enough for the rebuild to start paying dividends. But the Isles are still a piece or two away from becoming a perennial contender.

Let’s not jump ship just yet; we’ve come this far, haven’t we?

Capuano gambled on Reasoner’s playoff experience and lost, but that’s not the sole reason for the Islanders defeat. Many of the Isles were playing their first career postseason games, and it showed. That’s all there is to it. All the preparation in the world can’t combat what it feels like to play in a game of that magnitude.

As for Capuano and last night’s game in general: it’s easy to pick out a scapegoat, especially if that person is behind the bench. And I know it’s not easy, considering how the loss still stings, but let’s try to cut Cappy a break.

After all, it was his first NHL postseason game too.