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Islanders’ Johnny Boychuk ready to go if season resumes

The defenseman overcame a gruesome eye injury suffered at Barclays

March 27, 2020 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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The New York Islanders’ March 3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at Barclays Center will go down as the franchise’s final game here in Downtown Brooklyn.

It will also be remembered as the night veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk nearly lost an eye.

Boychuk was jostling for position with Montreal left wing Artturi Lehkonen in front of the Islanders’ net when Lehkonen lost his balance and fell forward.

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The skate blade on Lehkonen’s right skate was thrust upward behind him and got under the face shield of Boychuk, who immediately slumped to the ice in front of New York goaltender Thomas Greiss.

As Boychuk instinctively reached up to his left eye, the blood spurted onto the ice while the Islanders’ medical staff leaped over the boards and into action, leaving the crowd of 12,788 on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush aghast at the horrific scene.

“(Boychuk) had quite a night. … He felt the skate blade hit his eye, but fortunately, it just got the eyelid,” Isles General Manager Lou Lamoriello said during Saturday’s Q&A with fans on the team’s website.

The 36-year-old defenseman needed 90 stiches to repair the gash above his left eye.

“I was very blessed and lucky that I didn’t cut my eyeball,” Boychuk said. “It was very close, but thankfully it didn’t.

According to Lamoriello, Boychuk, now in his 13th NHL season and sixth with the Islanders, will be ready for action when or if the NHL resumes after suspending its season due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Whether he’ll play again this year or next, Boychuk considers himself lucky to have kept the eye, which was dangerously close to absorbing the full impact of Lehkonen’s errant skate blade.

“Things could have gone way worse,” said Boychuk. “You’ve seen it in the past. You’ve seen the worst and you never want to think that of one of your teammates or yourself.

“It’s scary, but it’s part of the game. It’s a freak accident and it’s going to happen again to somebody. You don’t want to see it. You just pray for them.”

Boychuk was actually back at practice with his teammates on March 11, just eight days after the gruesome scene at Barclays.

The Edmonton, Alberta native wouldn’t have played in the Isles’ next game at Calgary regardless of whether the league shut down indefinitely on March 12 after the coronavirus forced professional and amateur leagues across the sporting world to pause.

“It was great just to be out there with the guys and being part of the group,” Boychuk intimated following his return to practice, while admitting that the swelling around his left eye was still impairing his vision.

He also felt fortunate that Lehkonen’s skate blade didn’t contact him a bit lower, pointing out that it could have cut through his throat and created what he termed a “life or death” situation.

“When I was on the ice, I looked down and couldn’t see out of that eye,” Boychuk said. “It was tough.”

Not as tough as Boychuk, who will be raring and ready to go once the NHL decides it is safe for teams to begin practicing again for what figures to be a truncated regular-season slate ahead of the team’s playoffs.

The NHL’s original March 27 re-start date for practice has already been pushed back, and it is highly unlikely that we will see any teams in any leagues gathering again until we have a firmer hold on the ever-changing landscape the deadly coronavirus has created.

The Islanders, who were scheduled to host their final two games at Barclays on March 17 and 22 before the league’s stoppage, will make those games up, if they are played at all, at the renovated Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y.

The franchise moved into Barclays for the 2015-16 campaign and won its first playoff series since 1993 on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush that season.

But the Isles are moving into their new arena in Elmont, N.Y., in time for the 2021-22 season, and announced earlier this year that they would play their remaining regular season and postseason dates at the Coliseum until their state-of-the-art facility adjacent to the legendary Belmont Racetrack is ready.

“I have all indications that the Belmont Park Arena is on schedule and will be ready for the 2021-22 season,” Lamoriello noted.

As for Boychuk, he’s received plenty of support from those who watched in horror as his unfortunate accident was replayed on highlight shows across the nation and in his native Canada.

“I got hundreds of texts from people,” he revealed. “There was thousands on social media, it’s nice to see that support throughout the NHL community. Even if you weren’t an NHL fan there were people sending me good wishes and it means a lot.”

It will mean even more if Boychuk is able to retake the ice with his teammates later this year and help them chase a second consecutive playoff berth.

Last season, the franchise’s first under the guidance of Lamoriello and Head Coach Barry Trotz, New York went to the Eastern Conference semifinals, leaving the Isles two steps shy of their ultimate goal: the team’s first Stanley Cup title since 1983.

If the league returns to action in time to complete its current season, the Isles will be just one point behind Carolina and Columbus for the final two playoff spots in the East.

And Boychuk is doubtlessly looking forward to helping the Isles in their postseason push.

“It’s just a matter of time with the eye opening up,” Lamoriello said.

Isle Have Another: Lamoriello was also asked Saturday about how his team has responded to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. “We have followed all of the guidelines that our government has provided, as well as the guidelines given by the NHL,” he said. “Players have been told to quarantine at home. I do not know if you can call it an advantage or not because other teams have injured players as well, but we will have Casey (Cizikas) and Johnny back and that will make us a better team.” Cizikas has not played since Feb. 11 due to a leg injury.

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