As we prepare for the Capitals' return to the postseason, we've been looking at some relatively unknown Islanders players, trying to get a better understanding of some of the key supporting players. As we've done in the past, we'd also like to look at how the Islanders forwards stack up against the Caps as a unit. Both teams are led by superstar forwards, but what are we likely to see after John Tavares, Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom? And which lines, for that matter, will be tasked with controlling all of that firepower?
Let's examine the Islanders' forward utilization this season, and how well the forwards have handled those assignments. First, let's take a look at their most common line combinations (via Left Wing Lock):
The fourth line (the "best fourth line in hockey" you'll be told ad nauseam if you're so lucky as to live in the Islanders' broadcast territory) is the only real mainstay throughout the season, with the rest of the top-nine players spending varying degrees of time together, largely due to injury. Over the last ten games the lines have been a bit more consistent, though John Tavares is on two different lines with over 10% of the total even strength time. It seems likely that Taveres and Kyle Okposo will play together, but the Caps should be ready to face a variety of line combinations, and a heavy dose of Tavares.
When we look at how Capuano utilizes his forwards, the point is reemphasized - after Tavares and his linemates, there isn't a lot to differentiate the other forwards, until you get to the best fourth line in hockey:
The Islanders are clearly comfortable letting Tavares, Okposo, and Josh Bailey go power versus power, though they do give that line more offensive zone starts than their teammates (which makes sense). Two-thirds of the best fourth line in hockey is sheltered like a pair of doomsday preppers, and the rest of the forwards are largely interchangeable. Injuries to Mikhail Grabovski and Frans Nielsen could challenge the Islanders' depth, but both guys look like they'll be able to play when the series starts and, even if they can't, the Islanders have other quality options to skate those minutes (such is the nature of depth).
There seems to be a preference for playing Nielsen and Nikolai Kulemin against top opposing forwards, and that aligns with Nielsen's sterling reputation. But the preference isn't that strong given that Brock Nelson's F QualComp is less than thirty seconds lower than Nielsen's. Capuano may prefer to play Nielsen against strong opponents, but he's comfortable with Nelson handling that job as well.
Looking at how the Capitals deploy their lines, a couple story lines become clear:
Just as Capuano is comfortable allowing Tavares to go power versus power, Barry Trotz has no problem allowing Backstrom and Ovechkin to do the same. If Trotz reunites Backstrom and Ovechkin for the playoffs, expect to see a lot of Backstrom versus Tavares in the faceoff circle. If the trial separation of the two superstars continues, it will be interesting to see which Caps player is chosen by Trotz to face Tavares, and which forward Capuano tries to match Tavares against. Whichever forward faces Tavares, expect the other to see a lot of Nielsen and Nelson.
Also similar to Capuano's preference for Nielsen against tough forwards, Trotz likes to utilize Eric Fehr against strong opposition. Trotz's preference appears to be a bit stronger than Capuano's, which makes sense given the Islanders' depth compared to the Capitals. Look for the Caps to be the more aggressive line-matchers in the series. Generally Fehr has been flanked by Joel Ward and either Jason Chimera or Brooks Laich, but with Ward's recent promotion to the top line it hasn't been quite as consistent down the stretch. The Caps' checking line has also struggled of late, and if that line can't find their groove it may spell trouble for the Caps as they try to contain a deep Islanders forward corps.
Predicting how each team will utilize its players is only part of the equation; we also want to understand which team is likely to win the respective matchups. Looking at the performance of each team underscores a point that has been all too familiar to the Capitals for the last several seasons: The forwards will go as far as Ovechkin and Backstrom can carry them.
Looking at the Islanders, we see a deep group of forwards that all perform reasonably well:
Tavares' line has the best Corsi performance relative to the team, meaning that not only do they face the toughest opposition, but they also have the best results. That allows the lower Islanders lines to take on easier competition, and they generally succeed. The Nielsen and Nelson middle lines are all solidly on the right side of 50% in total Corsi, and are neutral or positive in relative Corsi. The best fourth line in hockey doesn't look so hot, but fourth lines rarely do compared to their more talented teammates.
The Caps are organized similarly to the Islanders, with a top line playing power versus power and a pair of relatively interchangeable middle lines. Unfortunately, the results don't quite look the same:
Ovechkin and Backstrom carry their weight against top opposition, but the second and third lines can't keep pace. After the top line, there's a lot of yellow among the forwards in the middle of the chart, indicating negative Corsi relative to the rest of the team (with a couple of kids providing some positive performance hidden right in the middle). Based on the performance on this season (and the last several...), Ovechkin and Backstrom are going to have to carry the offensive load for the Caps. If the pair can continue to perform well while separated, that might give the Caps two lines that can control the game, but the numbers between Ovechkin and Kuznetsov to this point have not been very promising.
None of this should really be a surprise. The Islanders are one of the top five teams in the league at even strength goal scoring, and the Caps... aren't. The forward matchups were always going to be a struggle, but the Caps should have at least one line that can hang with the Islanders. Ovechkin and Backstrom will need to have a strong series, and the middle lines will need to find a way to pitch in - otherwise it could be a long (short) series for the Caps.