The Washington Capitals came out of the gate strong, then hit a speed bump, and then got back on the wave they were riding at the start of the season and are now sitting in second place in the Mass Mutual East Division as of this writing. The team in first place? The New York Islanders. However, despite them being in first place in the division, the Capitals have had their number all shortened-season long. This is quite a change of pace from 2019-20, where, as we all know, they had an incredibly difficult time with the Islanders.
Because of this change of pace, I would like to take a dive into how Washington has played against the Islanders so far and compare it to how poorly they played them last season.
Looking at Last Season
In 2019-20, the Capitals and Islanders split their season series two-a-piece, with all games ending in regulation. The teams were evenly scored as well, with each team scoring 14 goals against the other. Washington had the upper-hand in the shots category, outshooting them 126-109 over their four games. Both teams’ power play units were abysmal, and both teams’ penalty kill units were outstanding, as Alex Ovechkin and his team went 2/11 with the man advantage for an 18.18 percent success rate but killed off 8/9 Islanders’ power plays for a success rate of 88.88 percent. Of course, as vanilla as this season series sounds with even scoring and hardly any power play success, not all the games were as boring as they may seem. So, overall, it’s fair to say the Capitals played fairly well against a strong Islanders team. However, that idea went out the window the second they entered the bubble for their first-round playoff matchup.
Of course, I do not want to go back and revisit their series against the Islanders from the 2020 NHL Playoffs in the bubble. It was a dark time in almost a decade of overwhelmingly bright hockey in the nation’s capital. Going up against the former head coach that led them to the Stanley Cup, Barry Trotz, in what we all knew would be Braden Holtby’s last kick at the can in D.C., they were defeated in five games by the Islanders. What took place was pure domination and led some to believe that the players on Washington were not taking the unique postseason very seriously.
In their series, the Islanders outscored the Capitals 17-8 and outshot them 136-124. Going back to Holtby, he escaped the series with an .895 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.80 goals against average (GAA), while former Washington goalie Semyon Varlamov put up a .935 SV% and a 1.60 GAA against his former club. Without sugar-coating it, they absolutely took it to Washington, who didn’t even look interested in a good chunk of the games in this series. It was legitimately stunning to watch after, as I mentioned, their regular-season series against the Islanders was quite evenly matched. After being defeated in the first round, they fired head coach Todd Reirden after two seasons as the bench boss, and hired Peter Laviolette in the offseason.
Since this defeat, it is as if Washington has turned a new leaf when it comes to playing the Islanders.
That New Leaf
As I mentioned, this season series between these two teams has (so far) been an entirely different story.
At just over the halfway point of the 2020-21 shortened NHL season, the Capitals have gone 3-0-0 against the Islanders in their three games played against one another. Of course, the teams still have five games to play against each other, so we could be singing a different song after the season concludes. However, in a regular season, these teams would play each other four total times, so it is worth discussing how much better they have played against their longtime division rivals.
Through these three games, the Capitals have outscored the Islanders 12-6 and are actually being outshot by them 82-86. In terms of special teams, Washington has gone 5/9 and clicked at a 55.55 percent on the power play, and their penalty kill has killed off 6/8 Islanders’ power plays, a success rate of 75 percent. So, by comparison, their power play is doing substantially better than last season, and their penalty kill is doing worse (but only by a little). What seems to be the real reason this team is playing better against the Islanders, who gave them all kinds of trouble last season, is that they are playing better defensively, getting more saves, and the pucks are just going in more often.
It is noticeable that, under Laviolette, the Capitals are playing a different defensive strategy where they are more aggressive offensively. Attacking a team like the Islanders, who are aggressive defenders in their own right, takes away their time and space and is a different approach than simply sitting back and trying to stop them. That plays right into their favour. This style of play has worked well so far, seeing as how their last game against the Islanders, where they won 3-1, was arguably their most complete game of the season. In terms of goaltending, both Holtby and Ilya Samsonov had their own respective game last season against the Islanders, where their SV% was below .850%, and they were pulled from the net. In Holtby’s one game against them where he wasn’t pulled, his SV% was .818.
This season, Vitek Vanecek has played two games against the Islanders and has a .941 SV% and a .900 SV%, respectively. In Samsonov’s one game against them, he has a .955 SV%. This means that, even when the defense falters, the Capitals are getting the saves they need from their two young goalies.
When it comes to pucks going in the net, look no further than the shooting percentages (S%) in their games against the Islanders. In their first three games against them last season, the Capitals had an S% of 7.14 percent, 7.69 percent, and 20 percent, which is an outlier because it is the insane comeback I linked to earlier. A more realistic S% would be in their fourth game last season, where they had a 10.34 S%. This campaign, they have had a S% of 8.10 percent, 26.08 percent, and 13.63 percent, respectively. The shots are not very different from last year, so it just seems that the pucks are finding their way into the back of the net more this season than last.
This season, the two teams will play each other more than ever, so these longtime rivals will become very comfortable with each other (especially since they play each other five times in April). Although it has been a small sample size so far, the Capitals have played well against — at the moment — the best team in their division.