As Joel Ward sealed the 5-2 victory for the Capitals over the Islanders on Friday night, there was a feeling across Long Island that I don’t think has truly been felt at any point in ten years.
That feeling was nonchalance towards a loss. And not in the “well, we always lose” way, but more in the “well, at least we’re still in a comfortable position” way.
Only the Montreal Canadiens, with one more game under their belts than the Islanders, have more points in the Eastern Conference. New York is tied with Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, and third place Washington is a whole 8 points back even with the victory.
Now a quarter of the way through the season, we’re starting to get to the point where records matter and are a reflection of which teams are good and which teams aren’t. Obviously, most people are not expecting the Florida Panthers to make the playoffs, but 1-10 in the East is basically the teams that were expected to compete for playoff spots, and 11-16 are mostly the ones that most people had outside of the picture.
With this in mind, seeing a 5-2 loss to a divisional foe hurts, but isn’t nearly as bad as it could be, especially when you examine the game as a whole. Let’s specifically look at these next two goals, from Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, which made the game 3-2 and 4-2.
So with the game tied, Ovechkin puts an absolute laser past Chad Johnson. Remember, this is the greatest goal-scorer in the world against a backup goaltender who honestly played pretty well. Not much Johnson can do with that shot, although it’s not nearly what Kuznetsov does to bury this game in the 3rd.
Wow. That has to be one of the prettiest goals scored all season. Kuznetsov was smart enough and quick enough to skate right to the near circle, take advantage of a hobbled Travis Hamonic, and fire a shot that would beat every goaltender in the league 99% of the time.
This may seem like an excuse to gush over the Capitals, but it’s truly not. It’s a way to recognize that sometimes your opponent is just playing better hockey than you on that night. Most fans would agree that the team looked flat from the opening faceoff, and the Capitals were buzzing. On this night, the Islanders were just not as good as the Capitals.
The one concern I still have at this point in the season is the special teams, particularly the penalty kill. At 73.1% the Islanders are the worst penalty killing team in the league. Thankfully their 20% power play helps to even things out a bit, and hopefully the addition of Michael Grabner can help the penalty kill. I’ve always been a proponent of the rule that if your power play and penalty kill combined are at or above 100% at the end of the season, you’re a contender. There’s still a lot of time to right the ship on this penalty kill, as bad as it’s been.
With that all said, it’s so much easier to be optimistic going into the Saturday afternoon matchup against a struggling Devils group. This team has won 10 games this month, a feat that was last accomplished by the Islanders in December of 2003. With a win on Saturday, they could make it 11. It seems like that 2003-04 was the last time it was this easy to brush off a loss, too.