Earlier in the week we took a look at the prospective forward and defense matchups that we're likely to see in the upcoming series between the Capitals and Islanders. Now let's take a deeper look at how some of these specific matchups played out during the regular season meetings between the two teams. As there were only four games, the sample sizes are all small and highly subject to variance and randomness, but they may provide some early insight into how things may play out (and, of course, the playoff series sample won't be too much larger than the regular season sample).
We predict a lot of power versus power between the teams, meaning John Tavares and Alex Ovechkin are likely to go head to head quite a bit. John Carlson and Travis Hamonic will play the tough minutes, so they'll also spend a lot of time on ice with the superstars. The Islanders favor Frans Nielsen for the tough assignments, after Tavares, and the Caps favor Eric Fehr, so the ability of those two lines to control the play is likely to have a big impact on the series. Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk are the second pair for the Islanders, facing a lot of middle-six competition, with Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner playing that role for the Capitals.
Below is a table showing how well these key Caps have performed against the key Islanders; Goals For percentage and Corsi For percentage, and total time on ice against the specific opponent are provided. In case Barry Trotz continues to play Ovechkin on a separate line from Nicklas Backstrom, we've also included Backstrom in the table below.
You may notice that the Caps lost most of the Corsi For battles, and won most of the Goals For battles... thanks Braden Holtby. Before you get too excited or disheartened by anything in the GF% column, most of these pairings only saw one or two goals go in while they were on the ice (Carlson and Nielsen saw zero). That said, there's plenty to be disheartened about in the Corsi For percentage, as most of the matchups were unfavorable to the Caps in the regular season.
The numbers look like we've correctly predicted the matchups, as Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Carlson all play more minutes against Hamonic and Tavares than they do against Leddy and Nielsen. Hamonic won the possession battle (and, frankly, may have been the best Islanders player in the season series), but Tavares was just about 50% against the Caps top players. We can infer that Ovechkin and Backstrom did better against Tavares when they got him without Hamonic on the ice, so (again) Hamonic's health is going to have far-reaching consequences in this series. Whether either Ovechkin or Backstrom can break even with Tavares without the other remains to be seen, and based on the practice lines it looks like we'll find out how the Caps look against the Islanders with their stars on separate lines.
The power versus power matchup isn't exactly in the Caps' favor, but the depth matchups are much, much worse. Nick Leddy (also serving as a proxy for Johnny Boychuk's minutes) had his way with the Caps. It's not much of a surprise as he and Boychuk had their way with most teams they faced this year, but it is still a concern. With Ovechkin and Backstrom split, one of them will play against Leddy and Boychuk. If Leddy and Boychuk continue to dominate their minutes, that effectively takes one of the Caps' two best forwards out of the game at even strength, which would be a huge win for the Islanders. Leddy and Boychuk have had a great season, but at least some of that has to be the result of letting Hamonic handle so much of the dirty work, so maybe there's an opportunity there for the Caps, but I tend to doubt it.
Then you look at Nielsen's performance and it seems clear that the depth players on the Islanders out-performed the depth players on the Capitals. This highlights the importance that depth will play in this series, as the Caps actually did pretty well against Tavares. The bright spot, insofar as there is one, is Fehr's performance against Tavares. If that 53.9% isn't a total fluke, that should give Barry Trotz some confidence that he can use Fehr's line against the Islanders' top line, freeing up Ovechkin for some easier minutes (at least in the defensive zone).
Ultimately the head-to-head performance during the regular season is more favorable for the Islanders at even strength. The Caps found a way to compensate for that with their power play, but it's always a risky proposition to rely on special teams in the playoffs. Who knows how many power play opportunities the Caps will get (or if they'll get any at all)? Bringing their individual even strength matchups closer to 50/50 would be a big step forward. Otherwise, Braden Holtby had better continue to be superb in net.