As the regular season has come to an end, Last Word On Sports analyzes every playoff series heading into this week’s action. In the first installment, we take a look at the matchups in five categories: Offense, defense, goaltending, coaching and special teams. We also run down the players to look out for and give our final assessment on how the series will pan out. In the second portion, we will analyze what went down in the series, how the matchups led to the outcome and cover all important storylines.
After six consecutive seasons of post-season appearances for the Washington Capitals, they missed the dance last year after finishing 5th in the Metropolitan division with 90 points, down from their 1st and 2nd place finishes in previous seasons. With the revolving door swinging again on their coaching staff, Barry Trotz was brought in as head coach on the same day that Brian MacLellan was name senior vice president and general manager. The changes impacted the team instantly and the Capitals returned to grand form, finishing 2nd in the division.
For the New York Islanders, it will be their third playoff run since the lockout in 2005-06. After finishing dead last in their division last season, general manager Garth Snow made some drastic changes to give the Islanders a new look. Stabilizing their defensive core with the additions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, while adding some scoring in forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, and finally fixing their goaltender position with Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson – who was later traded to the Buffalo Sabres forMichael Neuvirth – the Islanders showed promise of new things to come. The result: A playoff seeding and first round matchup against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.
The Matchup: Capitals Versus Islanders
These two teams met in the regular season a total of four times, with both locking up two wins apiece and three of the four games going past regulation. Interesting to note that the home team won every game during this season series. The Islanders won two games in overtime, 3-2 on Thanksgiving Eve and a 4-3 decision on December 29th. The Capitals struck back, earning a 5-2 win on November 28th and following it up by winning the final meeting between the two teams by a score of 3-2 in a shootout, on February 21st.
The Capitals offense is led by none other than Ovechkin and his league-leading 53 goals on the season. While the production dips off after Nicklas Backstrom and his 60 assists and 78 points, and the additional numbers from defenseman John Carlson, Washington still managed to get 20-goal seasons out of both Marcus Johansson (20) and Troy Brouwer (21). Both Joel Ward and Eric Fehr came close, notching 19 goals each, providing timely goals while adding excellent two-way play for a team needing some additional defensive contribution. Meanwhile, Evgeny Kuznetsov put together a respectable 37-point campaign in just his second season, as a 22-year-old.
John Tavares, as expected, led the Islanders in all offensive statistics. Putting up 38 goals and adding 48 assists for 86 points put him ahead by a wide margin of the next point-getter in Kyle Okposo, who managed 51 points in 60 games. Ryan Strome led all players in plus-minus with a plus-23 rating while also adding 50 points on the season, one behind Okposo despite playing 21 more games. The 30-point seasons from defensemen Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Travis Hamonic added secondary scoring, while the 20-goal seasons from Brock Nelson (20) and Anders Lee (25) turned out to be a deciding factor in the Islanders winning some important games.
Mike Green and John Carlson led the defensive surge on offensive production, but Carlson’s two-way play elevated him to the next level, earning him so talk among analysts as a potential Norris-calibre defenseman in years to come, while Green’s 45-point season was nothing to scoff at. New additions in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik provide playoff experience and some grit on the backend, while Karl Alzner enjoyed a good season at both ends of the ice. With a defensive core that can put pucks in the net, keep pucks away from their net and lay the body, the Capitals of today are in a good position to do some damage.
The aforementioned additions in Boychuk and Leddy have been exactly what the Islanders have been missing for quite some time. With their top-6 completed by the experienced Lubomir Visnovsky and youngsters in Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan, it’s been night-and-day when comparing this defensive squad to last year’s version. In recent update, blue-liner Griffin Reinhart has been called up. Whether he’ll be playing in game 1 or just filling in as an extra on the Black Aces, that remains to be seen.
The Vezina may be a two-man battle between Carey Price and Pekka Rinne, but arguments for who is the third finalist could be made for Brayden Holtby. Tied for second in the league with 9 shutouts, Holtby registered a top-ten finish in save percentage (.923), while hanging in the top-five for goals against (2.22) and wins (41). What’s even more remarkable than that is the fact that no other goalie in the league faced more shots and made more saves than Holtby did, and 38 of the 157 goals he allowed came during a powerplay.
Playing with his third team in two years, Halak has finally found a good home with the Islanders. Setting a career-high in wins (38), the Slovakian netminder also struggled at times and was inconsistent during the stretch of the season. In 59 appearances as an Islander, Halak posted subpar .900 save percentage performances and nearly hit career-lows in both save percentage and goals against. The only silver lining is the fact that he managed to hold down the fort in key moments, late in the game, and 37 of his 144 goals against came on the man advantage.
After refusing to take a lesser role with the Nashville Predators following their regular season finishing without a playoff position clinched, Trotz made his way to Washington, bringing his defensive-minded strategy to a team that lacked it greatly. The end result turned the team around to a degree nobody had expected. Succeeding in places where previous coaches faltered, Trotz instilled a two-way game plan into the likes of offensive juggernauts in Ovechkin and Backstrom. Gone was the mentality of run-and-gun and in its place, a structured team that became frustrating to play against in all three zones.
Into his fifth tenure with the Islanders, Jack Capuano had to find a way to bring his team to the postseason for a second time. His move from the hot seat to glory has been all thanks to Snow’s ability to land significant free agents and make key trades to improve his team beyond belief and turn them from a bad team to a contender. However, Capuano has done an excellent job behind the bench, getting the most out of all four lines and finding situations that perfectly suit certain lines, which have paid off in turn with some key goals that have led to comeback victories.
There have been many interesting powerplays that feature some of the most talented players, however teams like the Predators and Blackhawks are among the bottom of the league on the man advantage. The same can’t be said for the Capitals, who are first in the league with a 25.3% efficiency rate. The Islanders are in the bottom half of the league, at the 16th spot, with an 18.7% efficiency rate. The penalty kill is also tilted in the Capitals favor, who hold a 81.2% efficiency rate at the 13th spot, while the Islanders are the fifth-worst team at killing penalties, with a 78.0% efficiency rate.
Who To Look Out For
For the Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom
In the four meetings this season, Backstrom has managed to put up 6 points (1 goal, 5 assists) against the Islanders. His vision and hockey IQ is through the roof and has been showcased all season long. One major factor is how he’ll work the best powerplay in the league, with Ovechkin on his wing waiting to blast pucks into the net, against one of the worst penalty killing teams in the league. Having led the entire NHL in assists, look out for 27-year-old Swedish center.
For the Islanders: Anders Lee
Of his 25 goals on the season, Lee recorded three against the Capitals. The 6’3, 227 lbs center has been a force all season, imposing his size, playing a consistent two-way game and potting the timely goal, when needed. He’s the exact package that Islanders fans had hyped him up to be and what he does in the playoffs, outside of Tavares, Okposo and Strome, could be all the difference the Islanders need to overcome a Capitals team that is better (on paper) at just about every facet of the game.
After a memorable season that saw the Islanders go from the basement to a playoff-bound team, they are in tough against a Capitals team that has been revitalized by a new coaching system. Tavares and the Isles have played some inspiring, catch-up style hockey over the course of the season but if they plan on playing a rope-a-dope style against the Capitals, they’ll be in way over their heads. Instead, they’ll have to rely on matching up Boychuk and Leddy against Washington’s top stars in hopes of containing them completely. The one uncertainty is how Halak performs in goal. If he can replicate the 2010 form that saw him take out the Capitals in seven games, the Islanders have a good shot of upsetting them. At the end of the day, it’s all about a stronger defensive style that has Ovechkin and Backstrom running gun, and with too many question marks surround the Islanders performing in big games, I expect the outcome to be Capitals in 6 games.
Series Predictions From Our Hockey Department:
Shawn Wilken: Capitals in 6
Ben Kerr: Capitals in 6
Dave Gove: Capitals in 6
Ken Hill: Capitals in 6
Cristiano Simonetta: Capitals in 7
Markus Meyer: Capitals in 7
Tyler Shea: Islanders in 6
Griffin Schroeder: Islanders in 6