While the New York Rangers and their fans are celebrating winning the draft lottery, the New York Islanders are preparing for the beginning of their Stanley Cup Playoff run against the Washington Capitals. It’s a rematch five years in the making, not to mention head coach Barry Trotz will be facing his former team, this series will provide entertaining, emotional games for both squads.
“You’ll Have to Go Through the Island, OK?”
In a heartfelt message to the Capitals, while receiving his 2018 Stanley Cup ring before the 2018-19 season, Islanders’ head coach Trotz said the Caps could win another Cup, but they would have to, “Go through the ____ Island.” If Washington plans on bouncing back from their first-round exit last season, they will indeed need to go through Long Island.
The Caps and Isles have a great playoff history dating back to 1983. Their most recent matchup coincided with the first farewell to the Nassau Coliseum in 2015, and a memorable Game 6 victory to keep the Barn alive. The Capitals eventually got the better of the Islanders in an embarrassing Game 7, but the good news is a lot has changed for both sides since then, especially for the Islanders, and the outcome this time around may surprise a lot of people.
Islanders Have the Edge
Even though the Capitals aren’t that far removed from their 2018 Stanley Cup, their first-round exit last season at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes showed they weren’t a perfect team; their flaws exposed by a well-coached team led by Rod Brind’amour. While some players have moved on from the Capitals, the core has remained mostly the same. Anchored by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Braden Holby, many players have grown with the team, save for T.J. Oshie, and had a lot of success.
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The Capitals also played a lot of low-intensity games during round-robin play, and Holtby seemed the only player who was playoff ready. Other knocks against them heading into the first round include the oft-scratched Radko Gudas who leads the team in scoring with two points, and Carlson not being healthy enough to play.
On the other hand, the Islanders have grown and changed exponentially in the five years since that 2015 matchup. After giving the Caps a run for their money in those playoffs, they got the monkey off their back in the spring of 2016 when they won their first playoff series in 23 years. They defeated the Florida Panthers and, though there were a few seasons between, the Islanders followed that up by sweeping a talented Pittsburgh Penguins team in the 2019 Playoffs and dominated the Panthers in this year’s qualifiers.
The Islanders may have the edge in this series because the Capitals haven’t changed much in five years and the Islanders played them really well in 2015, despite having a gritty, rag-tag supporting cast for John Tavares.
Today, the Islanders have more balanced scoring, solid defense and goaltending. They are strong down the middle, and they have new coaches. With all these changes, I can see them flipping the script this time around. They’ve kept their grit, but added a strong defensive system and heightened responsibility for everyone. They’ve also proved they can shut down other team’s top performers. Lastly, the Islanders are rolling right now. Anthony Beauvillier is on fire, and the team is getting production from up and down the lineup, including from their defense.
Tom Wilson, who has grown into the epitome of the modern NHL power forward in the last five seasons, is able to forecheck, fight, and score goals. He is an x-factor for the Capitals. For the Islanders to be successful, they won’t just need to stop Ovechkin and Backstrom and match the physicality of Wilson, they need to take it to another level, suffocating the Capitals’ defense and taking advantage of their mistakes. If the Islanders allow Wilson to run around and get time and space, they’ll find themselves outside of the bubble in short order.
Islanders captain Anders Lee, who was held pointless in the qualifying series against the Panthers, could be a game-breaker. The “Killer B” line, made up of Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, and Beauvillier, has been buzzing (pun intended), largely carrying the Islanders to the first round.
If Lee can get going alongside Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle, it would make a huge difference. Unfortunately, Lee hasn’t had a ton of playoff experience, which could affect his performance. The former 40-goal scorer is capable of being a difference-maker and will be called upon in this series to do just that.
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The media is split on who has the advantage in this series, which kicks off on Wednesday, August 12 at 3 pm. Can the Islanders stay hot and shut down the Capitals’ big guns? It will be a tall task, but I believe the Islanders will be up to the challenge this time around.
Want more Islanders content? Check out the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast, hosted by The Hockey Writers‘ authors James Nichols and Jon Zella with new episodes every Wednesday. Also, tune into their live broadcast during Game 1 of the first round on HotMic.