January 26, 2013

Aucoin, Strait have a night to remember at the Garden

By Andrew Merritt

Keith Aucoin put two pucks past Tuukka Rask in Friday's game between the Isles and Bruins. (Getty Images)

BOSTON – For two New York Islanders, Friday night’s forgettable 4-2 loss to the Bruins was still a night to remember.

Waltham natives Keith Aucoin and Brian Strait have taken circuitous paths to end up with the Isles, with Aucoin playing for three different NHL franchises and a total of 12 different teams since graduating from Norwich in 2001, and Strait starting his post-Boston University career with the Pittsburgh organization before being claimed by New York off waivers just days before the 2013 season started.

Those paths led to TD Garden Friday, and while the two new Islanders couldn’t help their team overcome a late Bruins’ rally, both had plenty to be happy about – as did the cadre of friends and family who came out to see them.

Aucoin was arguably the only highlight for the Islanders, scoring both New York goals, including an absolute bomb on an off-balance slap that gave the visitors a brief 2-1 lead in the second period. The goal he scored 11:13 into the game was also the first he’d ever scored at TD Garden, in his ninth game there.

“I had a lot of my family [here],” Aucoin said. I played a lot of games here, especially in the playoffs. To be on the board tonight, it was a pretty good feeling to do in front of my family and friends.”

Aucoin has been something of a good luck charm when it comes to the Garden. Until Friday night, he had never suffered a regulation loss in Boston, with his teams going 7-0-1. He was also a member of the Washington Capitals team that bounced the Bruins from the playoffs last spring.

“Last year, winning Game 7 here was pretty special,” said Aucoin, who grew up in Waltham and played his high school hockey in Chelmsford. “Whenever you play at the Garden, the hometown team you grew up watching, and cheering for, and to be able to play in front of 40 people here, it’s always fun to come back and play.”

Friday’s game was the first such experience for Strait, who played his first game at the Garden since the 2009 Hockey East final, in which his BU Terriers beat UMass-Lowell 1-0 before going on to win the NCAA title. Strait left BU shortly after that, forgoing his senior season to start his pro career.

Strait nearly made his professional Garden debut after being called up by the Pittsburgh Penguins in October 2011, but was sent back down to the Pens’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., just before Pittsburgh came to town.

Strait was on the ice for 18:20 of Friday night’s game, over 26 shifts. The first of those, a quick 20-second spin just over a minute into the first period, might have been the hardest.

“It was exciting, I was a little nervous in the first period getting out there, but I definitely got settled in,” said Strait, who paired mostly with Matt Carkner and Mark Streit during the game. “It’s our fourth game, and I’m starting to get used to what the guys do here.”

Strait (pictured right) was also involved in a couple of big moments in the game. The Bruins’ Daniel Paille put a stiff check on him with about three and a half minutes to go in the first, which drew the ire of Matt Martin. Shawn Thornton went to stand in for Paille in the brewing hostilities, and by the end of the sequence Martin, Thornton and Paille all took penalties.

Strait also found the spotlight late in the first, when Boston’s Patrice Bergeron tried to connect off of an end-board rebound. The Bruin center got one shot off, but Strait’s firm check knocked him off-balance and prevented a follow-up, earning Strait a frustrated swipe to the shoulder from the Bruin center.

During the lockout, Strait was still a part of the Pittsburgh organization, and played in 41 games at Wilkes-Barre, scoring four goals and 12 assists. He was claimed off waivers by the Islanders on Jan. 18, just 24 hours before the season-opening loss to New Jersey.

It was a big change for Strait, who was drafted 65th overall by the Penguins in 2006.

“Yeah, I was fortunate enough to be playing during the lockout,” Strait said. “That made it easier to get settled in here.”

Strait also had a ready-made buddy in Aucoin.

“We skated together in the summer, so it’s been good having a local guy around, riding to practice together,” Strait said.

Both of the new additions have impressed their coach in the early going. Jack Capuano entrusted Strait with plenty of ice time, and was pleased with the result.

“He’s fitting in quite well,” said Capuano, who as the former coach of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers got an eyeful of Strait when the Islanders’ AHL affiliate clashed with Wilkes-Barre. “He’s a good kid, he’s a high character guy, we’re happy to have him on our team, he’s logging a lot of minutes, he does a lot of little things right. I love his compete level and his willingness to pay the price. He’s playing some quality minutes with us right now.”

One of the little things Strait did right came about seven minutes into the second, when he foiled a Bruin 2-on-1, deflecting a Milan Lucic shot over the glass.

It wasn’t enough to push them past the Bruins, but Capuano could at least point to the two hometown boys as positives in an otherwise dreary night in Boston.

“Any time you come back to your hometown, I think the first shift you’re obviously a little bit nervous, and keep the emotions in check,” he said. “I thought both those players played pretty well for us tonight. It was good for them.”

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.