Last night the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders resumed their rivalry, given new life with the hotly contested (and hotly debated) seven-game playoff series last spring. While the Tom Wilson vs. New York Islanders fans story line will likely never go away, an actual hockey game was played, and a pretty good one at that. As is frequently the case in close games, small defensive mistakes made a big difference in the outcome.
Fortunately for the Caps, the Islanders had the last crucial mistake, allowing the Capitals to skate away with the win... and oddly enough, former-Capital Mikhail Grabovski found himself in the middle of three-fifths of the defensive miscues. Let's take a look.
Earlier in the game, Grabovski opened the scoring when he had an open look at a loose puck right outside Braden Holtby's crease. Not a good place to leave a talented player all alone with a loose puck. And the breakdown came with the Capital's top line and top defensive pair on the ice, no less. So how did Grabovski get so open? First, the video:
The Islanders' movement caused the Capitals so much confusion that at one point John Carlson ended up covering his man out near the point and Alex Ovechkin ended up covering an Isles forward in front of the net. That's probably not how Barry Trotz envisions the defensive zone coverage. But the crucial breakdown happened when Nate Schmidt was picked by his own teammate, T.J. Oshie.
The Capitals were playing man-to-man, and when Calvin de Haan swooped down low in the zone, he brought Oshie with him. As de Haan returned to his point and Graboski took a wide turn through the top of the slot, after curling behind the net, Oshie and Schmidt got tangled up as they attempted to shadow their respective men.
It happens, and luckily for the Caps in this case it didn't happen at a crucial moment. They still had plenty of time to return the favor.
It wouldn't take long. Before the first period ended, Oshie settled the score, this time by taking advantage of Grabovski:
The play all starts when Ryan Strome misses his attempt to connect with John Tavares on a deflection. The play turns into a self-clearing shot, and thanks to the Islanders' decision to play Brian Strait, Nicklas Backstrom wins the race to the loose puck.
Seriously, Backstrom won a footrace... but I digress.
Nick Leddy races back to provide defensive coverage on Backstrom, but there's a reason the Islanders use Travis Hamonic as their number one stopper. Backstrom uses his... let's call 'em hockey haunches, to shield Leddy from being able to make a play on the puck, and ultimately finds a wide open Oshie for an easy one-timer. But why was Oshie so open? Look at the path he takes through the offensive zone:
— CAPITALS HILL (@CapitalsHill) February 5, 2016
Oshie doesn't just drive straight to the net like a bat out of hell. He takes a couple of turns until he can get separation from Grabovski, who starts off with good defensive position. But Oshie's movement provides just enough separation for him to get an uncontested one-timer, and the game was tied. Head on a swivel, bro.
After the teams traded a couple more egregious defensive miscues right in front of their own goalies (with Hamonic making an uncharacteristic mistake by chasing Jason Chimera behind the net, leaving Andre Burakovsky all alone to bury the loose puck, and Josh Bailey utterly abusing Dmitri Orlov on top of the crease after Tom Wilson was out-muscled by... Marek Zidlicky?), we once again find Grabovski in the middle of the action. Luckily, it was in the Caps' favor.
This one is a little complicated, so bear with me.
The Isles start off in good position, playing man-on-man down low with both defensemen and John Tavares covering the Caps' top line. Grabovski is playing wing (circled in red), responsible for the Caps' right side defender.
As the Caps work the puck around the boards, Matt Niskanen pinches to hold possession and Backstrom moves to the point to provide defensive coverage.
The Islanders now have four defenders below the top of the circles, covering three Capitals. It's preferable to the alternative, but the confusion proves costly. Niskanen makes a nice play. It looks like he's going to just bank the puck back into the corner, but he turns and reverses the puck up to the point, where Backstrom is alone. Grabovski races to apply pressure, and Backstrom sauces the puck back to Niskanen. Now the Isles start to get in trouble.
Niskanen is all alone, and the Isles begin scrambling to chase the open man. Never a good situation for a defense to be in. Two Isles are facing Niskanen (Tavares and de Haan), and both begin moving toward him. This time Niskanen does put the puck in the corner. Take a look at where Oshie is before Niskanen moves the puck.
Oshie wins the race to the puck, and beats two Islanders to the puck along the boards. An un-marked Ovechkin stands in the corner, while Hamonic and Tavares are right behind the net battling Oshie and de Haan is at the bottom of the circle covering nobody. Oshie goes straight beast mode and out-battles Tavares and de Haan, who has switched with Hamonic as Oshie began to reverse back to the right wing corner. But while Oshie battles, Ovechkin and Backstrom keep moving, and ... uh oh...
That's the Capitals' two best forwards all alone in the danger zone. That's definitely not how Jack Capuano drew it up. Oshie reverses the puck to the corner as he skates behind the net. Nobody is even close to challenge Backstrom, who takes control of the puck with time and space.
Grabovski has a choice to make. He's the only Islanders defender that can challenge Backstrom. He's also the only Islanders defender that can cover Ovechkin. But he decides to keep his body in no man's land, and uses his stick to take away the passing lane to Niskanen at the point.
We know how that story ends. If there's any guy you don't want to see wide open and cocked for a one-timer in the middle of the slot, it's probably number 8 in red.
Final tally: Five Islanders defenders, four of whom are arguably covering nobody, and an Islanders goalie that isn't even beginning to square up to the most dangerous one-timer in the league.
— CAPITALS HILL (@CapitalsHill) February 5, 2016
When was the last time we saw Ovi that open from there? Maybe not since the first time we saw him score.
Tell me Ovi's GWG last night didn't look like his first NHL goal. You can't. https://t.co/Vt6RMW8Wnz— Japers' Rink (@JapersRink) February 5, 2016
The Caps would need a late penalty kill to secure the regulation victory, but this sequence all but guaranteed the Caps at least one point on a night where at many times it looked like they may come away with zero, and ultimately gave them two. Two more to the already comfortable cushion they hold in the division race, if that's what we're still calling it.
One final thing that's worth pointing out, the Caps and Isles went Power versus Power all night long. And while the Caps certainly shouldn't feel all too comfortable with how well the top line performed, we're certainly not going to complain with the 2-1 PvP score, especially after the latest game against the Panthers. Sometimes that just happens, and with talent like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, they don't need too many open looks, certainly not when they are getting them from right in the middle of the slot.
And so the grind marches on towards the inevitable playoff birth. Until then, all we can do is wait, watch, and hope that this year ends differently from so many promising seasons of the past.