The Washington Capitals defeated the New York Islanders 1-0 Tuesday night to complete an impressive three-game sweep to end their regular-season series. The Capitals have a 6-2 record against the Islanders this season but should be wary of a potential first-round matchup against this dangerous squad.
Capitals Dominate Islanders in Regular Season
Though the Pittsburgh Penguins ended their winning streak in a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday, they have waddled their way to second in the MassMutual East Division, trailing the Capitals by one point. Washington held off their rivals by defeating a tougher team. Well, the Islanders are in a post-trade deadline slump, so the Bruins may be slightly better this morning.
The Penguins’ schedule is benefiting them, with seven games against the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils this month, winning six of them. That the Capitals have not faltered in their division race and playoff positioning is a testament to their solid play during a tough stretch.
Thursday, April 22: Capitals 1, Islanders 0
This looks familiar. On April 6, the score was reversed as the Islanders proved they can defeat the Capitals in a low-scoring physical battle. That night, New York took 39 shots and got only one past Vitek Vanecek. On Thursday, it was Ilya Samsonov who stole the show, stopping all 26 Islanders shots in regulation and overtime. The Capitals prevailed in the shootout, courtesy of Evgeny Kuznetsov.
This was also Michael Raffl’s first game with the Capitals after being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers. The forward had two shots in 13:32 on the ice. However, the main note of the game was that Alexander Ovechkin did leave in the third period with a lower-body injury and was unavailable for the other two games in this series.
Saturday, April 24: Capitals 6, Islanders 3
It didn’t matter that the Capitals were Ovechkin-less on Saturday. That’s not true – it always matters – but the offense stepped up in their captain’s absence. Eleven different skaters had points in the contest, including a one-goal, two-assist performance by Kuznetsov. Daniel Sprong filled in nicely again with two goals skating alongside Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, and the Backstrom-Mantha-Oshie line continued their consistent production since the trade deadline.
Samsonov regressed, giving up three goals on 24 shots, and the penalty kill was ineffective, allowing the Islanders to take advantage of both opportunities with the extra skater.
Tuesday, April 27: Capitals 1, Islanders 0
Another similar story. Welcome back, fans! Capital One Arena was occupied by warm-blooded human beings – and not just from the media and the organization – on Tuesday. The 2,133 in attendance were a reassuring sight and a sign that the days of cardboard cutouts are slowly fanning (pun intended) out. Though the stadium was only at 11% capacity, the raucous crowd still echoed from spread-out seats to lonely rafters.
The players’ excitement was palpable. Sprong scored 1:29 into the first period on the first shot of the game. Fifty combined shots later, that remained the only tally of the match. Vanecek was steller, as he has been against New York all season, and the defense held the Islanders to just 18 shots. The Capitals created 33 shots of their own while controlling 60% of faceoffs. It was an all-around great performance even though the scoreboard read 1-0.
The key for the Capitals was the confidence they maintained. They won in many ways against a very good team, and it’s been that way for most of the season series. The Capitals are undefeated against the Islanders in Washington, and with the return of fans, and also the belief they can win in New York now, a potential playoff matchup could tilt in the Capitals’ favor—but let’s not jinx anything quite yet.
Potential First-Round Matchup
One thing to remember is that Ovechkin has only played in three of the eight meetings with New York this season, with three points (1 goal, 2 assists) and a minus-1 rating. Nicklas Backstrom has been surgical against the Islanders defense, with seven assists and a goal, but Sprong has been the true X-factor, tallying five of his season-total 10 goals against New York, four with Ovechkin out of the lineup.
The blue line has displayed their offensive prowess against the Islanders as well. They have accounted for 21 points in the season series but also held the Islanders to two goals or less in five of the eight games. Washington is receiving a lot of production from a lot of players, and that type of teamwork will help them reach their ultimate goal: a return to Cup glory.
There are two worrisome trends, however. First, the inconsistent play of Samsonov in net. Yes, he’s 3-1 against New York, but in those games, he let in 10 goals and has a save percentage of .895—and that includes his shutout on Thursday. Three of those scores have come on the power play, and he also allowed a short-handed goal. Vanecek, not including his April 1 relief effort, is 3-1 against the Islanders with a .954 save percentage and six goals allowed—only one via the power play.
Speaking of which, the Capitals haven’t scored a power-play goal in their last four games versus New York. Going into Thursday’s game, they were 6-for-10 with the extra skater against the Islanders, and they have been 0-for-8 since. For a team that occasionally relies on their power-play production, the Capitals must re-figure out how to take advantage of the advantage.
Or, is it that big of an issue? Last night’s goal was their 120th at even strength to lead the league. Yes, it is an issue, but one that may work itself out. They have other minor adjustments to prioritize.
Since prioritizing is on the mind, Thursday’s game against the Penguins will be for the division lead, but perhaps the East title isn’t a top priority. Of the remaining teams battling for a playoff berth or seeding, the Capitals have the best record against the Islanders. They are 2-1-3 against Pittsburgh, 3-4 versus Boston, and 2-4 when facing the pesky New York Rangers.
Fans would rather see a Stanley Cup title than a MassMutual East title. The road may best start with a first-round home-ice series against the Islanders. Be careful what you wish for, however: history tends to repeat itself. Before we count out the importance of winning the division, let’s see who is positioned where. If the Islanders slip to the fourth seed, it may not be the worst thing to win the division; but if Boston or the Rangers claim the last playoff spot, it may be less enticing.
Then there are the Penguins. Oh, those Penguins. No matter what, the postseason will present difficult matchups, so keeping the confidence is key, and that must continue tomorrow night.