Mere hours away from puck drop on the opening series between the Capitals and Islanders, we take a look at the good, bad and ugly that lies ahead for the Caps...
Compare this Caps' team to the teams that made the playoffs over the last 5-6 years - what about them makes you more confident than in the past? What makes you more nervous?
Becca: There's been a lot of talk about this team playing a "heavy game" and how that makes them better suited for the playoffs - the Caps have just become a very hard team to play against. They're a big team that's good at taking away time and space, and their physical ability (and willingness to use their size) should make life very difficult over the course of a four-to-seven game series. Plus they've got the best goal-scorer in the League and one of the best goalies.
As for the nervous part, the speed on the blueline (or lack thereof) gives me a bit of anxiety. The Islanders have a lot of speed, particularly up front - as does pretty much every other team they'd come across - and guys like Brooks Orpik and Tim Gleason, while effective at doing their hulking, physical thing, are not the speediest skaters. If the Islanders figure out a way to take advantage of that, this could get a little rough.
And of course... Jaroslav Halak.
Rob: Barry Trotz's system does seem to be more conducive to playoff hockey, and given the injuries the Caps have caused throughout the season, I can't see the Islanders surviving a seven-game series with all of their top-six defenders healthy (and Travis Hamonic is already banged up). But where I think the Caps have made the biggest difference from years past is on their own blueline. The depth and experience the team added last summer will be crucial in the playoffs. As unlikely as it is for the Isles to survive with all their D healthy, it's also unlikely the Caps will be able to do that. This year they're much better prepared to withstand injuries, with guys like Mike Green ready to step into a bigger role and guys like Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov ready to dress when someone gets injured.
The lack of top end skill among the forwards is what concerns me. The team plays heavy, and they are defensively responsible (for the most part), but the secondary scoring is going to continue to be a concern. The Islanders have much more scoring depth, so if the top lines cancel each other out, the Islanders have the advantage with their speed and skill. Production from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky would help balance the scales, but given how they've performed (or been used, in general) over the season, it's a little optimistic to expect them to jump into playoff hockey and provide reliable secondary scoring.
J.P.: Look at the Game One starting goalies for the Caps in the playoffs during the Ovechkin Era: an unsustainably hot Cristobal Huet, Jose Theodore (twice, somehow), a middling Michal Neuvirth, an unproven Braden Holtby and an improving Holtby. Not one of those guys inspired a ton of confidence in net (though Holtby quickly earned it against the Bruins). All of that brings us to this year's Holtby, a Vezina-caliber backstop with a strong defense in front of him. His playoffs may or may not live up to his magnificent regular season, but confidence in the Caps goaltending situation should be higher than it's been since Olie Kolzig's best years.
As for anxiety, it's the playoffs and it's the Caps - do we really need to justify nerves? If so, I'd point to a lack of consistent secondary scoring. The skaters on the roster not named Alex have been known to collectively go ice cold for long stretches, and if that happens against the Isles, it'll be a quick series, because New York is going to score some goals.
Kevin: I'm with J.P. here. When was the last time the Caps' entered round one with a head-and-shoulders above the rest #1 goaltender? But since that's already been mentioned, I'll shift the focus to the blueline, where the Caps are more experienced than they've been in years. The additions of Orpik and Niskanen brought 154 games of playoff experience to the table. And Green (57 playoff games), Karl Alzner (31), and John Carlson (37) are no strangers to the NHL's second season either.
Between having a guy between the pipes who's having a season inarguably characterized as "elite", and having a sturdy corps of blueliners in front of him, the Caps have a look on the backend unlike anything they saw under Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, or Adam Oates.
As for what makes me nervous: John Tavares, the Islanders' speed up and down the ranks, and Jaroslav Halak. It's irrational to think that Halak can replicate his domination of the Capitals from April 2010, but that doesn't make the horrific reliving of those memories any less sweat-inducing.
The Peerless: In this era of the Capitals, they have been largely one-dimensional. In that, there were two sides of the same coin -- the offense-oriented philosophy and the talent on that side of the puck, and the lack of reliable goaltending and shallow defense. The Caps had to score to win. In the Ovechkin playoff era, in games in which the Caps scored three or fewer goals, their record is 15-31. They had to score to win. This team can win in diverse ways. They can still score, but they have deeper defense, better goaltending, and a win-the-wall style that they just have not had before this season.
On the "nervous" side, the Caps are not elite in any one area, except perhaps goaltending. They can be streaky on offense, especially in terms of a lack of secondary scoring, and they are not an especially dominating team at 5-on-5. They are prone from time to time to lapses on defense. And Holtby is not without those games in which he looks like a novice swimmer in the crease. There have been far fewer of those this season, but it still happens from time to time. When they have to dig deep for a win, what skill will they be able to count on?
How well do you think the Caps match up with their first-round opponent?
Rob: The matchup is certainly more favorable than it would have appeared a couple months ago, before the Islanders started their slide. Compared to most of the teams the Caps have faced in the playoffs over the last few years (Habs, Rangers, Bruins), the Islanders haven't succeeded all year by keeping pucks out of their net - they outscore teams. That means the Caps' offensive players should have some opportunities (maybe even leading to some secondary scoring...) and don't have to worry as much about one or two goals standing up in a low-scoring game. The other huge matchup advantage for the Caps is that the Islanders have a bad penalty kill, so maybe this is the year the Caps' PP shows up in the playoffs and helps carry them to a victory.
J.P.: The matchup isn't ideal (I'd have preferred the Pens or Montreal, which seemed like realistic options fairly late in the season), and the special teams edges the Caps would appear to hold are somewhat mitigated by the reduction in penalties we'll no doubt see called. But the Caps can skate with the Isles and should endeavor to do so - trying to slow the Isles down may be more likely to hinder the Caps' own efforts than it is to be effective.
Becca: Speed aside, I think the Caps actually match up pretty well with the Islanders. They have comparable offensive ability (both teams are in the top-ten in goals per game, the Isles holding a slight edge) but the Caps are much better on special teams and have better defense and goaltending. The Islanders actually seem to have a bit of the 2010 Caps in them - they can score a ton of goals but they're not great at keeping the puck out of the net, and that's a tough way to play when the postseason rolls around.
Kevin: I don't love the matchup, but I don't hate it either. Frankly, as the playoff picture continued to mature, I was just happy to see that the Caps would at least avoid a first round tilt with the Rangers. I could see the Islanders getting the better of the overall play. Their ability to skate and generate offense - they've got 50 more Corsi events on the season than the next closest team - combined with slower-skating Brooks Orpik's large share of ice time spells worry. But Stanley Cup contenders seriously contend because their star players live up to the moment - think Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Braden Holtby comprise enough star power to outweigh the grey areas.
Peerless: This is a matchup that I think heavily favors the Caps in one respect. The Caps have been a consistent team all season. They are not prone to wild swings of streakiness in wins and losses. No big winning streaks (none more than four games), but they had nine streaks of three wins or more. This suggests to me a team that can deal with the peaks and valleys. On the other side, the whole playoff thing is still a bit new to the Islanders -- one appearance in the last seven years before this season. Have they served their full apprenticeship?
Who will be the most important player for the Caps in this series and why?
J.P.: Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin is going to do his thing and Holtby will do his. But Backstrom (as long as he's not on a line with Ovechkin) is the key to a credible second line and is hugely important on the power play. He also has just three goals and ten assists in his last 32 playoff games. It's hard to envision the Caps getting past New York without Backstrom being as great as he can be and making a big impact. (Okay, the answer is really Holtby, of course, but that was getting boring.)
Kevin: John Carlson. This statement contrasts a little bit with what I said about superstars above. But so much of this team's successes have come in tandem with extremely consistent play from the young blueliner (is Carly really 25 already?). Carlson is the leading point generator on the blue line, despite he and Orpik taking the largest percentage of defensive draws vs offensive draws of all blueliner pairings. He'll be getting large doses of John Tavares, and quarterbacking a powerplay that's going to need to click in limited opportunities. Put succinctly: he's got to wear a lot of hats, and he's got to wear ‘em well...which is exactly what he's done all season long.
Becca: Braden Holtby. That would probably be true of any series, or any team's goalie, but it feels particularly important in a series where the opponent is offensively strong and perhaps not as strong defensively. Holtby will have his work cut out for him as he faces down guys like John Tavares, and he'll be key to making sure games don't devolve into run-and-gun, "last goal wins" type of outings.
Rob: Braden Holtby, just as it's been all year long. The Caps have had better possession numbers and have improved the team in a myriad of ways over last season, but the bottom line is their success still tracks to Holtby's performance. They aren't good enough to bail out Holtby if he isn't bringing his A-game. Even if the goaltending matchp is even, that may not be enough because the Islanders have more scoring depth. So for the Caps to win, Holtby is going to have to be the best Capital, and the best goalie in the series.
Peerless: Nicklas Backstrom. There are few better in bending the pace of a game to his comfort level than Backstrom. From this a lot of things flow -- structure on offense, an effective power play, better possession numbers to take the heat off Holtby. When the puck is on his stick, often, the Caps are in a good place.
Prediction time: who wins this series, Caps or Isles? How many games?
Becca: Caps in 6.
Rob: Isles in 7.
J.P.: Caps in 7.
Kevin: Caps in 6.
Peerless: Caps in 6