It is officially set in stone. After going through the qualifying round/round-robin tournament unsure of who their first-round opponent will be, it has been decided that the Washington Capitals will face the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2020 NHL Playoffs.
The Capitals went 2-0-1 in their round-robin tournament, which helped them finish third overall in the Eastern Conference. The New York Islanders managed to take down the Florida Panthers in four games to stamp their ticket to the playoffs.
I will be up front in saying that of all the teams that emerged victorious from the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, I don’t see Washington as the overwhelming favourites against any of them. All of them are good, solid hockey teams, of course, but they are also teams that played well against Washington this season.
There are lots of stories within this first-round series, but before we get to those, I feel it is important that we break this series down so Capitals fans know what the team is getting into with the New York Islanders.
The Capitals and the Islanders managed to squeeze in their entire season series prior to the stoppage in play due to COVID-19. They faced each other four times during the regular season with the Capitals securing two wins and two regulation losses. So, in this instance, no team has a clear edge over the other as they have both been able to find ways to win against each other.
Related: Washington Capitals Logo History
One of these games was a 6-4 comeback win over the Islanders. In this game, Devon Toews scored to make it 4-1 for the Islanders in the second period and then proceeded to mock Evgeny Kuznetsov’s trademark bird celly. The Capitals then stormed back with five unanswered goals in the third period to win the game 6-4.
The last time these two teams met in the postseason was 2015. It was a series that went seven games and was won by then-rookie Kuznetsov, after he scored a late goal in Game 7 to win the game, the series, and temporarily closed Nassau Coliseum.
Their playoff history with the Islanders is nothing to brag about, as the Islanders are 21-16 against the Capitals whom they played in five straight playoffs from 1983 to 1987. The Islanders hold a 5-2 series-winning record over the Capitals. One of their games was the “Easter Epic” back in 1987 when the Islanders beat the Capitals in what still holds up as the longest Game 7 in NHL history at 6 hours and 18 minutes long.
At the time of the pause, the Islanders had a .588 win percentage as well as 80 points in the standings, which had them at fifth in the Metropolitan Division. They scored 189 goals this season, which was good for eighth-worst in the entire NHL and well below the league average of 208. On the other side of this, they only allowed 190, which was the fifth-best in the entire NHL and, again, way below the league average of, again, 208.
These stats paint the picture of what has come to be known as “Islanders hockey.” Islanders hockey can best be described as scoring one or two goals in a game while only allowing one or two to secure the win. They do not glamorize offense — they are a team committed to their defensive systems. The Capitals will need to break down their defense the way they broke down Vegas’ in the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, because we know they are not a high-flying offensive juggernaut.
This can be seen in their power play, which was the eighth-worst in the NHL at a 17.3%. Although you’d think their penalty kill would be one of the best in the league, it is actually right in the middle of the pack at 15th-best with an 80.7%. In their Qualifying Round with Florida, which is arguably the more important stats to look at, these numbers are a little different.
In their four games, the Islanders’ power play went 4 for 16 (25%) and a major improvement over their regular season numbers. Granted, the Panthers had the 12th-worst penalty kill in the league during the season with a 78.5%, and fifth-worst in the league during the playoffs with a 75%. Of the four teams that have a worse postseason penalty kill, the Islanders sit at third-worst in the league with a 71.4%, having allowed 4 goals on 13 penalty kills in 4 games.
During the regular season, Mathew Barzal, who put up 60 points in 68 games played, led the Islanders in the point-scoring category. Don’t let the 60 points throw you off, Barzal can be a game-changer if he gets going as he is one of the fastest and most dynamic players in the NHL. They were led in goal-scoring by Brock Nelson, who scored 26 goals this season, which was his fifth 20-goal season in the past six seasons. It will be repeated over and over that the Islanders will not blow anyone away with their offense, so it should all be about breaking down their defense as best as the Capitals can. (from ‘As NHL season restarts, could Islanders’ defense be a valuable asset?,’ Newsday, 07/29/2020)
It is worth noting that the Islanders were without Johnny Boychuk as he was injured in Game 1 after a high hit from Mike Matheson. He should be back for Game 1 against the Capitals.
An area where the Islanders seem to be quite content is in the crease. Throughout the season, they divided their starts between former Capital Semyon Varlamov and veteran Thomas Greiss, with Varlamov being the likely starter for the Islanders. He managed a 2.62 goals against average (GAA) with a .914 save percentage (SV%) in 45 games played. Greiss was no slouch himself, as he had a .913 SV% with a 2.74 GAA in 31 games played.
Varlamov has started for all four postseason games so far, and in those games has an outstanding .932 SV% and a 1.77 GAA.
Washington was in a better place than the Islanders when the season went on pause. They were first in the Metropolitan Division with a .652 winning percentage and 91 points in the standings. The Capitals were great offensively as they scored 240 goals, which was good enough for second-best in the NHL. They were fairly average at keeping the puck out of their net, as they allowed 212 goals which was 15th-best in the league.
Leading the charge up front was Alex Ovechkin, who tied with Boston Bruins’ David Pastrnak for the league-lead in goals with 48, securing his ninth Rocket Richard Trophy. However, the Capitals were actually led in points and assists by defenseman John Carlson who finished with 75 points in 69 games played and also grabbed his first Norris-Trophy nomination.
However, it is worth noting that Carlson has not played in the postseason, as he went down with an injury during the Capitals’ exhibition game with the Carolina Hurricanes. However, he is likely to return for the first game of playoffs.
It is questionable whether Lars Eller will be back, as he left the bubble on Aug. 5 for the birth of his son, Alexander. He returned to the bubble on Aug. 8 and will need to remain isolated in his hotel room until the 12 and only after he has produced four consecutive negative tests for COVID-19.
Washington’s once-famous power play has faltered over the past couple of seasons and finished 17th-best in the league this year, shooting at 19.4%. Their penalty kill, surprisingly, was phenomenal at 82.6%, finishing sixth-best in the NHL. This could have something to do with the addition of Carl Hagelin, who is a speedy winger that is dynamite on the penalty kill.
In the postseason it has been much of the same — the Capitals’ power play has scored once on 10 opportunities for a power play percentage of 10%. Their penalty kill has picked up right where it left off, allowing 0 goals on 8 penalty kills for 100% effectiveness thus far.
It is also concerning that the Capitals’ leading point-scorer in the round-robin tournament was frequent-healthy-scratch Radko Gudas with two points. It is also worth noting that Gudas is a defenseman. I am not sure if they just weren’t playing with any intensity given the circumstances or what, but the Capitals need to step it up offensively if they want to stand a fighting chance as none of their big dogs up front were impressive at all. Hopefully, the added intensity of real playoff hockey will wake up their offensive forwards.
Coming into the playoffs, the Capitals’ goaltending looked like it may be an issue, as some were wondering whether to start backup goalie Ilya Samsonov over Braden Holtby. However, after Samsonov was injured during the break and did not travel to Toronto with the team, it seemed clear it was Holtby’s net. Then he proved it by playing great during the round-robin tournament, putting up a 0.925 SV% and a 1.98 GAA. He was easily their best player during the tournament, and that is a very good thing heading into the first round.
A main issue for the Capitals is their defense, as it has been shaky at times throughout the season and especially during the latter half. If they can dial it in and play smart, defensive hockey, they should be able to beat the Islanders because their offense is simply on another level.
Of course, there are a number of storylines heading into this series. There is the fact that the Capitals drafted Varlamov back in 2006, but none loom larger than the fact that Islanders head coach Barry Trotz is the same man who helped Washington win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup back in 2018. Yes, this should be a tough one for Capitals fans as Trotz is beloved by many, myself included. He is, in my opinion, a top-three coach in the NHL and I wish things could have ended differently for him in D.C. I mean, not the Cup part, the him not getting a new contract part… I am happy with the Cup.
There is also the fact that there is a lot of pressure on Washington as the favourites with Stanley-Cup aspirations playing a lower-seeded team. This should be a physical and hard-fought series where one team will attempt to dissect the other’s style of game to try to exploit a weakness and penetrate the other’s armour. It’s all about who will crack first.
Fans will find out who will strike first when this series begins on Wednesday at 3 p.m. EST.