There’s no problem with the Washington Capitals uppercut.
As Wednesday’s Game 1 against the New York Islanders played out, the Caps put their fists away and puttered to a 4-2 loss. Some early chippiness put the Islanders’ on their heels, with Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee – key forwards for the Islanders – looking particularly frustrated by their inability to get into their style of play.
It was then particularly disheartening for Washington when Eberle and Lee responded with a goal apiece to tie the game early in the third period. The Capitals never recovered as the Islanders’ suffocating 5-on-5 defense slowed the game down, closed off the neutral zone, and the Capitals acquiesced.
That said, there are lessons to be learned from this loss. Here are three takeaways from Game 1 as we look ahead to the second game of this best-of-seven series.
Let Me Hear Your Body Talk
After one period of play, it was easy to come away thinking “this is going to be a physical series.” After three periods, this much is clear: it doesn’t have to be. If the Caps don’t make this a chippy, shoulder-to-shoulder, black-and-blue kind of roustabout’s ruckus, the Islanders will settle into their tactical, fundamental approach. That would be bad for the Caps.
It was Lee who handed out the first major blow of the series with a hit on Nicklas Backstrom (more on that later). That particular hit aside, a physical series bodes well for Washington.
They boast heavy hitters in Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, Garnet Hathaway, and Brenden Dillon, but more to the point, the Islanders need to play disciplined hockey to overtake a more talented Washingon team, as The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn and Harman Dayal wrote in their series preview. (from ‘2020 NHL playoff preview: Capitals vs. Islanders,’ The Athletic, 08/11/2020) The chippier this series gets, the better for Washington.
Putting Wilson on the second line looks like a smart move, though the Backstrom injury meant head coach Todd Reirdan had to scramble his lines almost immediately. Early in the first period, with Ovechkin and Wilson on different lines, the Caps had both hands up for a fight: Ovechkin taking shots on goal, Wilson taking shots at Islanders. What resulted was a petty and disjointed Islanders team that couldn’t stay out of the penalty box. That was good for the Caps.
A Hat Trick of Defensive Liability
I’m just gonna say it: beyond John Carlson and (sometimes) Dmitry Orlov, the blueliners on this team should be bottom-pair defensemen. Rather, they would be for a team with championship aspirations. Michal Kempny, in particular, has struggled this postseason. Lee exposed him badly early in the third by usurping space in front of the goal and easily shoveling home the tying goal. Bottom line: blue line play is going to be a question mark heading into each and every playoff game.
Then there’s this: After Tuesday’s goaltending clinic from the Blue Jackets’ Joonas Korpisalo and the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, it’s clear that Braden Holtby doesn’t rate. Granted, playoff Holtby is a good deal better than regular-season Holtby, and he did a nice job tracking the puck for long chunks of Game 1. (from ‘What’s behind Braden Holtby’s early turnaround in the NHL’s return to play?,’ The Athletic, 08/11/2020) But he’s far from a perfect solution, as he showed with some clumsy stickwork in the third period.
To finish off this hat trick of defensive woes: The Caps have one of the most unequivocally offensively-minded top-6 in the league. None of their best forwards registered an above-average mark in Defensive Point Shares: Ovechkin (0.8 Defensive Point Shares, the 2nd-lowest mark of his career), Evgeny Kuznetsov (0.9 DPS, the lowest full-season mark of his career), Wilson (1.0 DPS), Oshie (1.3 DPS), Backstrom (1.0 DPS) and Vrana (1.0 DPS).
“It’s not an encouraging sign that the entire top six wound up near the bottom of the team in on-ice 5-on-5 goal share. This suggests that while the Capitals’ best players are still generating copious amounts of offense, they’re giving almost all of that positive value back defensively.”The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn and Harman Dayal in their series preview.
To recap: the Caps don’t have a deep group of competent blueliners, they don’t have a shutdown goalie, and they aren’t blessed with two-way forwards. We’re running out of ways to stop the opposing team.
The Capitals’ Best Defenseman Is… Wilson?
The Capitals’ best defender is Carlson, full stop. But he’s not your typical shutdown defender. His stardom illustrates the old adage: “the best defense is a good offense.” In Wilson’s case, it’s more like: the best defense is a good uppercut. But the same line of thinking applies, get your opponent off-balance.
Related: Tom Wilson, Coming Into His Own
The Caps looked best in this game in the first period, forechecking with energy while Wilson played the niggling antagonist. Wilson’s one of the most hated players in the league and for good reason. When he gets chippy, he is quick to get under your skin. If the Islanders maintain their composure, they can shut down the Washington attack. When they lose composure, this can happen:
When the game got chippy, T.J. Oshie worked his magic. Oshie won’t wow your socks off with physicality, but he can do a bit of everything. Ice awareness and a high hockey IQ make him a dangerous player on broken plays and the power play (10 power-play goals this season).
But when the game slowed down, so did the Caps. They couldn’t get anything going in 5-on-5 play.
If the Caps aren’t going to stop the Islanders with defense, goaltending, or two-way play, then they need to utilize Wilson and big bodies to knock the Islanders off their game. Yes, physical, aggressive play will expose them in transition, but after that 5-on-5 showing, the Caps need to generate some momentum.
Of course, it never helps to lose your first-line center. Early in the game, Backstrom was blindsided by Islanders’ forward Lee. The 6’3″, 230-pound Lee held nothing back, came straight-on, and with Backstrom’s attention elsewhere, he absorbed the full hit. Backstrom gave it an honest go for another couple of shifts, but he didn’t see the ice after the first intermission. If Backstrom is out, the Capitals are going to be further handicapped in the 5-on-5.
If you’re looking for a reason to believe in the Caps, look to the captain. Ovechkin appeared lackluster at times, and he got beat badly for a shorthanded goal – but he also came out with a loaded slapshot and he banged the boards like a man desperate for contact. He didn’t net one, but Ovi let loose a number of blistering fastballs. The tide has to turn for him eventually. If it doesn’t, it’ll be the Islanders delivering the knockout.
TC Zencka is a sports writer and analyst whose work appears regularly on MLB Trade Rumors, Pitcher List and The Hockey Writers.