Beginning Wednesday night at Verizon Center, the Islanders and Capitals will collide in the postseason for the first time since 1993 – the last year the Isles won a playoff series.
The two clubs split the regular season series with three of the four matchups going beyond regulation. The Isles opened the season as one of the preeminent teams in the Eastern Conference, but stumbled down the stretch going 4-7-3 in the final month. The Caps, meanwhile, finished red hot, going 9-3-1 in their last 13 games.
Here is a series breakdown:
The Capitals have the world’s best goalscorer in Alex Ovechkin (53), the league’s assists leader in Nicklas Backstrom (60) and a bevy of talent up front, but the Islanders have been among the deepest teams in the NHL. Captain John Tavares (38 goals, 48 assists) leads the way on a balanced attack with six other forwards that finished with 40 points or more. The Isles ranked fourth in the league with 2.99 goals per game. Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck also make up one of the league’s most aggressive and best fourth lines.
The arrival of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk immediately and drastically improved the Islanders defensive corps this season. But after an apparent left knee injury last week in Pittsburgh, Travis Hamonic’s availability for the series is in question. Washington brings a physical and talented group to the blue line that includes John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Mike Green, all of whom have playoff experience.
Washington’s Braden Holtby turned in an impressive .923 save percentage this season and has 21 career playoff starts under his belt. But Holtby also started in a league-high 72 games and fatigue could become a factor. Jaroslav Halak enjoyed one of the best regular seasons for a goaltender in Isles history with a franchise-record 38 wins, but has been inconsistent throughout the year with a .914 save percentage. Halak has had one brilliant postseason run in his career which began when he brought the Canadiens back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Caps in the 2010 playoffs.
Jack Capuano brings the Islanders to the playoffs for the second time in three years, but for the first time after a full NHL season. After 15 years behind the bench in Nashville, Barry Trotz has reached the postseason in his first year in Washington. His 50 games of playoff experience should play dividends.
According to Tavares, this is the key to the series. Washington enters with the best power play in hockey (25.3%). The Isles killed 39 of 42 penalties in the final 18 games of the year, but still owned the 26th ranked penalty kill (78.0%), which shows just how bad it was for most of the season. If the Isles can’t stay disciplined and stay out of the box, or can’t clamp down on Ovechkin and Co. when they’re a man down, this series could be over quickly.
On the flipside, the Isles power play has been deadly at times and tepid at others, finishing the regular season at a mediocre 18.7% clip. The Caps PK unit finished at 81.2%.
The Capitals’ hot streak and Islanders’ slide toward the end of the regular season won’t matter once the puck drops in the playoffs, but injuries and experience will. Assuming Hamonic is too banged up to play, the Isles lose a crucial piece on their back end. Simply outscoring Washington won’t be easy with Holtby in net and in the end, failing to clinch home ice will come back to bite them.
CAPITALS IN 7
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