Two former University of Maine hockey teammates and two-year captains have helped lead their teams into the Stanley Cup playoffs after prolonged absences.
Bangor resident Jack Capuano, in his third season as the head coach of the youthful New York Islanders, piloted the Islanders to an eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and their first playoff berth since the 2006-2007 season.
They will open their best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on the road against top seed Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Dave Nonis is the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Leafs ended a nine-year playoff drought by earning the fifth seed and a first-round matchup with the fourth-seeded Boston Bruins. The Maple Leafs and Bruins will also begin their series at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Boston.
Capuano and Nonis were both defensemen at Maine and were captains for the 1986-87 and 1987-88 teams.
One of the assistant coaches for the Maple Leafs is former Maine interim head coach and assistant coach Greg Cronin.
And Garth Snow, a former Maine goalie, is the general manager of the Islanders.
The 46-year-old Capuano guided the Islanders to a 24-17-7 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) record including a 8-1-4 mark in April. That means the Islanders picked up at least one point in 12 of their final 13 games.
Sixteen players on Capuano’s roster have never played an NHL playoff game.
“Our guys deserve the opportunity [to be in the playoffs],” said Capuano. “Over the last two months, they’ve worked extremely hard and have played within the team concept. They have bought into the system. They have been relentless and have been rewarded for it.
“We had some bounces that didn’t go our way early in the season. We outplayed teams but didn’t win. But the guys never stopped working hard, they’ve showed a lot of character and they’ve been resilient. We have a great mix of younger players and veteran guys with great leadership qualities. They have battled and made sacrifices [for the betterment of the team],” added Capuano. “I’m extremely proud of them.”
The Islanders, led by high scoring John Tavares (48 games, 28 & 19) have one of the league’s best road records (14-6-4). They are 10-11-3 at home.
Capuano said he hasn’t altered his coaching style and he downplayed his role.
“I haven’t changed who I am. The players are the ones who are willing to do the things it takes to win games. As coaches, we just try to guide them, prepare them and point them in the right direction,” said Capuano who spent four years as a head coach in the ECHL and four more in the AHL after being an assistant with the Islanders and Bridgeport (AHL). “It’s an exciting time for us. You want to see your players do well and have success. A lot of people didn’t expect us to make the playoffs.”
Capuano said Snow deserves credit for making several subtle acquisitions who have complemented the veterans and played important roles in the team’s success.
Capuano said he wants his team to continue to “play fast and push the pace.”
“That’s how we play. And we want to play physical,” he added. “We want to play an exciting brand of hockey but it can’t take away from the defensive side of the puck. Our best offense comes from the way we play defense and we have to continue to do that against a Pittsburgh team that generates a ton of offense. We’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a great challenge.”
Pittsburgh led the NHL in scoring, averaging 3.38 goals per game.
When he gets a spare moment, Capuano listens to or watches over the Internet son Anthony’s Bangor High School baseball games.
There are also several other former Black Bears involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
John Tortorella is the head coach of the New York Rangers and they earned the sixth seed and a first-round date with No. 3 Washington at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Former All-American goalie Jimmy Howard (21-13-7 record, 2.13 goals against average, .923 save percentage) sparked his Detroit Red Wings to a 22nd consecutive playoff berth and the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference. They will open at No. 2 Anaheim at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. One of Howard’s teammates is third line left wing Gustav Nyquist (22 games, 3 goals, 3 assists), a two-time Hobey Baker Award finalist and All-American.
Left wing Dustin Penner (33, 2 & 12) played an integral role in the Los Angeles Kings’ march to their first Stanley Cup a year ago and he’s hoping to duplicate that feat beginning Tuesday when the fifth-seeded Kings open their playoff series at No. 4 St. Louis.
Ex-Maine defenseman Mike Lundin has played in 11 games (0 & 1) for the Ottawa Senators, who are the seventh seed in the East and will face off against No. 2 Montreal at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Former Maine goalie Ben Bishop and his Tampa Bay Lightning, which included former Black Bear teammate Teddy Purcell, didn’t make the Stanley Cup playoffs but Bishop was named to the United States roster for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Men’s World Championships in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm May 3-19.