With only 10 games remaining in the 2020-21 NHL regular season, the Washington Capitals are slated to play their three most important games of the year in the next six days, all against the New York Islanders.
The Capitals and Islanders are tied at 62 points for the MassMutual East division lead in a three-team race for the top, with the Pittsburgh Penguins in third just one point behind the co-leaders. However, be wary of the Boston Bruins steadily hanging around in the standings with a five-game win streak since the trade deadline. It’s going to be tight down the stretch.
The Penguins will play the New Jersey Devils thrice this week – Pittsburgh already claimed the wild first game of that series last night – it’s safe to say that these next three games between the Capitals and Islanders have huge implications for division glory and playoff seeding.
Capitals vs. Islanders So Far
The Capitals are 3-2 against the Islanders this season, but New York has handled Washington in the latter two games of the series, offensively in one, defensively in the other.
Washington won back-to-back games in January and snatched another victory in mid-March, outscoring the Islanders 12-6 in the process. Yet, April has been different. New York won 8-4 on the 1st and 1-0 on the 6th. That brought the series goal differential to a measly one. On the season, Washington and New York are coming into Thursday’s match with an overall goal differential of plus-22 and plus-27, respectively, which includes the Islanders’ dismantling of their inner-city rivals Tuesday night.
The Capitals have played better at home against the Islanders, with all three wins at Capital One Arena. Offensive contributions from the defense, as well as Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie’s play, helped Washington to fairly dominant results. Their blue line accounted for 14 points in the three victories, Backstrom contributed five, and Oshie added two, but most impressively, 18 Capitals recorded points in those three wins while Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov were only available for the March match due to their January suspensions.
The two Islanders’ wins didn’t indicate how to stop the Capitals except that they won in two vastly different ways—which should be unnerving to Washington. They did, however, claim both games in Uniondale and limited the Capitals’ defenders to just two points.
Washington has been on an offensive tear of late, and it’s because they are generating more shots. They scored eight goals against Boston on April 11, and since then, have netted 17 in four games. Unfortunately, two of the games were losses, one at the hands of the lowly Buffalo Sabres.
Though Washington still ranks 26th in the NHL in shots per game (28.7), they have averaged 33.6 in their last five contests, and remain second in the league in scoring efficiency with 3.5 goals per game. However, the Islanders have held the Capitals below their season averages in shots (26.6) and goals (3.2) during the first five matchups. One of the main factors for the Caps’ recent increase in shot attempts is the acquisition of Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings on April 12.
Newbies Will Be the X-Factor
Mantha has fit in well so far. The 6-foot-5 winger has four goals on 11 shots in his first four games with Washington and has also added an assist in 1:06:31 total ice time. Ex-Capital Jakub Vrana has two points in three games with Detroit.
In 39 games with Washington, Vrana accumulated 25 points (11 goals, 14 assists) primarily with linemates Backstrom and Oshie, while Mantha recorded fewer points (21) as a Red Wing in more games (42) which raised questions about the fairness of the deal. However, it greatly depends on who a player is playing with, and Mantha has flourished on the Backstrom-Oshie line.
Due to the scheduling changes in the last two seasons, Mantha has only faced off against the Islanders twice recently, scoring a goal for the Red Wings in last year’s loss. Though this Islanders squad hasn’t seen much of Mantha, New York added two high-profile forwards of their own on April 7, one day after they last faced Washington. In a massive deal with the Devils, they acquired Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, both of whom have played Washington often this season. Palmieri has just two assists in seven games against the Capitals, but Zajac has two goals and four helpers in the same amount of time.
Again, who a player lines up with matters, but so does their status from one team to another. Mantha has scored in each of his four games with Washington, while Palmieri and Zajac only have one goal apiece in seven appearances for the Islanders with a combined minus-3 rating. Zajac also has one assist. They totaled 35 points in 34 games for New Jersey before being traded.
Don’t be surprised if the Capitals take two out of three from the Islanders in a little less than a week’s time. The X-factor will be Mantha offensively, but it also depends on who is net for Washington. Vitek Vanecek is 2-1 against the Islanders this season, posting a .938 save percentage. Ilya Samsonov is 1-1 but has let in seven goals with a .852 save percentage. At the other end of the ice, Semyon Varlamov is 2-3 versus Washington with a .875 save percentage and has allowed 15 goals.
This three-game series is going to come down to netminders and X-factors. Both teams have already proven they can beat each other no matter the pace or style. The Capitals should win the week if Vanecek is in net, and Mantha remains hot in his new sweater.
-Thursday, April 22: Washington at New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
-Saturday, April 24: Washington at New York Islanders, 7 p.m. ET
-Tuesday, April 27: New York Islanders at Washington, 7 p.m. ET
Author. Master Journalist (so the degree says). I specialize in music, the publishing industry and sports. Hockey has always been a passion of mine, and though it is one sport I never played on ice–not many options in the desert–it is one I follow. I’m a Washington Capitals fan, and besides 2018, it’s been a frustrating journey. I love it.