After a long hard fought seven game series, the Washington Capitals defeated the New York Islanders, four games to three, and have advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The series had plenty of scoring to please the casual fan, moments of complete unpredictability, history in the making, and of course, heartbreak with the Nassau Coliseum no longer be operative any more in the NHL. The Islanders’ season has now come to an end while the Capitals get ready to take on the New York Rangers in round two.
Series Recap: Islanders vs Capitals
Game 1: The tone of the series was set early at the Verizon Center in Washington, when Brock Nelson of the Isles scored one of two goals in the game and the first goal of the series just over six minutes in the first, on Caps starting goaltender, Brayden Holtby. However, in the last minute of the period, Marcus Johansson of Washington, got his first of the post-season and knotted the score up before heading into intermission. Again, at the start of the period, New York was able to set the tone in their favour with Ryan Strome scoring the go ahead goal and eventually the game winner. Isles’ Josh Bailey was able to score midway through the second to pad their lead. There was nothing else to be said when Nelson scored the empty netter in the third. Jaroslav Halak saved 24 of 25 shots to secure his first post-season victory since 2012 with the St.Louis Blues.
Game 2: With the Islanders now ahead in the series, the home advantage taken away from the Capitals and Game 2 was necessity to win before heading to Long Island for Game 3 and 4. This would almost come as an extra challenge as Holtby was unable to start for the Caps after coming down with an illness. Instead, recalled from the Hershey Bears of the AHL and making his NHL playoff debut was Philipp Grubauer, who had totalled 20 appearances in NHL games. This didn’t change the way things started for the Islanders. Off the bat, just over five minutes, Cal Clutterbuck of the Isles, scores to take an early one goal lead. That would be the only scoring until Strome scored his second of the series, three minutes into the middle frame, to give the Isles a two goal lead. Finally, halfway through the period, Karl Alzner finds the back of the net for his first and puts the Caps on the board, trailing by a goal. Just barely over two minutes later, Bailey sets up Kyle Okposo‘s first goal as a response from New York. Exactly two minutes later, cue the five time ‘Rocket Richard’ trophy winner, captain capital himself, Alex Ovechkin, to score his first goal and bring his team back within one before the second intermission. The Isles then wouldn’t have nearly as great of a start or ending to the third period. Strome started it off by getting the second penalty of the game and only penalty for Isles on a slash to Tom Wilson. On that power play, Nicklas Backstrom was able to tie the game up at three with a shot from the slot, with his first and the first power play goal of the series. Jason Chimera then put the last and game winning goal for the Caps with just a few minutes over a half the third remaining. With the Caps allowing no more than seven shots per period, Grubauer, who saved 18 of 21 shots, was able to become the third goaltender in Caps history to win in his NHL playoff debut, after Bob Mason, April 11, 1987, and Olaf Kolzig, April 5th 1995. Grubauer also became the first German-born rookie goaltender to start a NHL playoff game.
Game 3: With the series split at one game a piece, the Islanders got what they needed done before starting their home games at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Once more the Isles would start the game and first period with a strong presence and although there wasn’t any scoring, they were able to swap the Capitals 16 to 5 in shots. Thankfully for Washington and Caps fans alike, Holtby was back from his illness and started the game. All though four penalties were called amongst the two teams in the second period, the only goal came even strength and from Okposo for his second to make it a one-nothing game for New York before the final period of regulation. After the first two periods, it was evident the Isles were playing relentlessly and not giving up for a second by outshooting Washington, 33-13 to this mark. The third period cleaned up quickly and was in favour of the Capitals. At last, the Caps were able to finally put a halt to the Islanders to generate enough for Backstrom to get his second of the series. The horn for regulation went off and the teams were stuck at a tie, for now. Within 15 seconds of overtime, captain of the Islanders, John Tavares was able to win the face-off, set up passes with Nikolay Kulemin and Nick Leddy while skating up, to score his first and game winner, stun the entire viewing audience, and to push the Islanders on top, two games to one.
Game 4: The opening period for the two teams matched up fairly evenly. Both scoring a goal in the second half of the first frame. Ovechkin started things off when he notched his second but within the dying seconds of the period, Casey Cizikas scored to tie things up, and it would go on being the only point he produced during entirety of the series. The next forty minutes of regulation would go on without any scoring but it didn’t stop the Isles from out shooting their opponents in those next two frames, 21-13. For the majority of the extra time needed to distinguish a winner, the Capitals were controlling the play. This would eventually lead to Backstrom netting the third puck behind Halak and tying things up at two games a piece.
Game 5: In this tie-breaking game, things were a little more unusual compared to the last four games of the series. What didn’t change was how the Isles started this one off. Nearly six minutes Bailey was back at it again for New York when he netted his second goal of the post-season. Unfortunately, that’s all she wrote for the blue and orange squad as it was all Washington from this point on out. Within just a couple of minutes, Evgeny Kuznetsov broke free from being scoreless and tied the game up. Midway through the game, Alzner struck again for his second and the eventual game winner to put his team up two to one. In the final frame, the Islander could only muster up seven shots while the Caps nearly doubled up at 13 while scoring 3 goals in the process. Brooks Laich notched his first in the opening minutes, followed by Kuznetsov getting his second of two in the game, and then to Chimera to top things off at five to one for Washington, with his 2nd of the series. The Capitals absolutely dominated the game and took the series lead for the first time at three game to two.
Game 6: The Islanders were now on home ice with their backs against the wall, facing elimination. Isles’ captain, Tavares, said he knew he had to have a big game to force a Game 7. He started things off well by opening the scoring of the game. However, towards the end, with about 30 seconds left remaining the first period, Tavares took a two minute minor penalty for slashing and gave the Caps their third and final power play. Within the dying seconds of the frame, John Carlson makes himself recognized by scoring his first of the playoffs, with the man advantage and knotting things up on a big goal. The Islanders exploded with 17 shots in the middle period but the only thing thrown on the board were a handful of penalties for both metropolitan teams. Halfway through the third period, Kulemin of the Isles, put in his first and the eventual game winner with Clutterbuck scoring the empty netter in the last minute. This would be the last game played at the NHL game played at the Nassau Coliseum as the Islanders went on to win 3-1, tying the series up at three, and forcing a Game 7.
Game 7: The game in which professional hockey players can become more. A game that can take a fourth liner and make him a hero. For this series deciding game, the heroism belongs to the Capitals defence. They withheld New York to no more than 11 shots in total, and at most four in one period. Being able to generate so little offence decreases anyone’s chance in winning drastically. The first two periods had very little intensity considering the stakes on the line. It wasn’t until about a minute and a half remaining in the second period was Capitals forward, Joel Ward, able to finally break the scoring drought and find the back of the net to give his team a one to nothing lead. Three minutes into the final period, Isles’ Frans Nielsen also was able to get his first and put his team up on the board, tying the game at one. Later on down the period, just over halfway, Kuzentsov continued heating things up by finding and tying the series lead for goals with his third and putting the Caps up by a goal. With less than three minutes to spare, the Islanders were in desperate need of a goal to extend their season. The opportunity arose when Carlson of Washington took a roughing minor and giving the Isles one last shot on the power play. The Capitals were successful on the penalty kill and ran the clock down to clinch themselves into the second round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs where they will be meeting another Metropolitan division opponent in the New York Rangers.
Trotz Stiffling Defence
The second highest scorer in the NHL this season, John Tavares lost the Art Ross Trophy in the final minute of the league’s final day with Jamie Benn scoring two points very late for Dallas. Trotz and the Capitals couldn’t completely stop him (he picked up 6 points in the series) but overall he was quiet, with only 1 multi-point game (picking up a goal and an assist in game 6). The damage done was minimal.
It wasn’t just Tavares though. Coach Barry Trotz has the Capitals playing great defensive hockey, and their shutdown work limited the Islanders to just 11 shots in game 7, the fewest ever recorded in a playoff game 7.
Evgeni Kuznetsov comes of Age
Coming over from Russia, Evgeni Kuznetsov was hyped as a possible Calder Trophy contender. The transition didn’t go that smoothly and he struggled in limited action last year, and early in this season. By March he had started to blossom and became a regular in the Capitals top six. However this series was his coming out party. His game 7 goal was the series winner, and a thing of beauty as he outwaited Jaroslav Halak to finish off the Islanders late in the third. This followed up a three point night in game 5. Kuznetsov came up big when the Capitals needed him to.
With the Islanders moving to Brooklyn next year, game 6 marks the final NHL game played at the Nassau Coliseum. The building has seen the best of the best hockey (the 80s dynasty) and the Worst of the Worst (the Milbury years), and its one building that will be missed.