Washington Capitals (41-20-8) vs. New York Islanders (35-23-10)
Then and Now I
Accounting for the shortened regular season (69 games instead of 82), this year’s version of the Caps look a lot like last year’s version, with two notable exceptions. First, the penalty kill was much better overall for the Caps, an improvement of almost four percentage points and 18 places in the rankings. This comes with a caveat, though. In 49 games leading up to the All-Star Game/bye break the Caps ranked second in the league with an 84.2 percent penalty kill. In 20 games after the break, the Caps ranked 21st with a 78.6 percent PK. The Caps rebounded with a perfect penalty kill in the round robin phase, skating off all eight shorthanded situations they faced, one of three teams (Toronto and Pittsburgh being the others, go figure) to have perfect penalty kills in the preliminary phase of the postseason.
The other area is in shot attempts at even strength. Last season, the Caps were under water (49.04 percent) in shot attempts-for percentage at evens and ranked 24th in the league in that statistic. This season they jumped almost three percentage points (to 51.60 percent) and ten spots in the rankings (to eighth). But again, that caveat applies. Unlike the penalty kill, though, the Caps maintained a certain consistency in this area pre-break (51.9 percent) and post break (50.8 percent). What was, and remains disturbing, though, is that the Caps ranked second to last among the 24 teams in the preliminary round of the postseason at 42.4 percent.
Then and Now II
These teams have a long history of meeting one another in the postseason, although the better term might be “ancient,” given that the teams have met in the playoffs only once since 1993. This is the eighth meeting in the playoffs between the teams with previous results as follows:
- 1983: Islanders won series, 3-1
- 1984: Islanders won series, 4-1
- 1985: Islanders won series, 3-2
- 1986: Capitals won series, 3-0
- 1987: Islanders won series, 4-3
- 1993: Islanders won series, 4-2
- 2015: Capitals won series, 4-3
In 37 games, the Caps are 16-21 against the Islanders, 3-6 in overtime, including perhaps the most famous overtime in Capitals history, the Easter Epic of Game 7 in 1987.
This season, the Caps split the four-game series with the Islanders, each team splitting games on the other’s rink. The thing that stands out, though, is that the team scoring first won each game.
How Caps of you to notice…
In 37 all-time postseason games against the Islanders, the Caps held the Isles without a power play goal 24 times. The Caps’ record in those games: 10-14. Sixteen times they scored a power play goal of their own. Their record: 6-10.
How Caps of you to notice II…
In the four games this season between the clubs, the Caps did not allow the Islanders a third period goal. On the other hand, the Caps recorded five third period goals against the Isles. All of them came in the same game, turning a 4-1 deficit into a 6-4 win on January 18th on Long Island.
An oldie, but a goody… We’re still waiting on the first four-game sweep by the Caps in a seven-game series. The Caps do have a three-game sweep of the Islanders in their history, though, but that was way back in 1986, one of two three-game sweeps in a best-of-five series in team history (the other against Philadelphia in 1984).
The Magic Number
14. When these teams last met in the postseason, in 2015, the Caps shut the Islanders out on all 14 power plays New York had in the series. It didn’t hurt that in each of the last five games, the Caps had two or fewer shorthanded situations to face.
The Cast of Skaters
John Carlson set a career high in points (75). Jakub Vrana posted a career high 25 goals. Tom Wilson was on a pace to set a career high in goals, finishing with 21, just one short of the 22 he posted last season. Alex Ovechkin was on a pace to finish with the second-highest goal total of his career (a 57-goal pace), but with 22 goals in his last 22 regular season games, hitting 60 for the second time in his career was not out of the question. Nicklas Backstrom was on pace to finish with his seventh straight season with 65 or more points. Garnet Hathaway was on pace to finish tied with or topping his career high in goals (11 in 2018-2019). Nic Dowd was on a pace to set a career high in goals (nine). Lars Eller was on a pace to set a career high in goals (19).
See a pattern? This Caps team was something of an underrated team with respect to its offensive balance. Rare is the instance when so many players post or threaten to post career highs in offensive categories. Their 3.42 goals per game average is their second best since their juggernaut year of 2009-2010, when they averaged 3.82 goals per game.
The Caps did not have quite the same balance against the Islanders in their four-game series. Of 21 skaters to dress for at least one game in the series, eight posted goals (led by Alex Ovechkin with three), and 14 recorded points. T.J. Oshie was the only player to score a power play goal, posting two. Among the defensemen, John Carlson posted the only goal by the blueliners and led the group with five points against the Isles. Here is more detail on the skaters for both the Caps and the Isles in this year’s season series:
Working with a net
With the injury to Ilya Samsonov putting him on the shelf until next season, any goalie controversy has dissipated. It is Braden Holtby’s net for the postseason. Holtby can become the first goalie in franchise history to post 50 playoff wins with his first win in this series. He is already the franchise leader in postseason games played (92), games started (91), minutes (5,712), shutouts (seven), and even goalie scoring (three points, all assists). No goalie in Caps history appearing in five or more games has a better postseason save percentage than Holtby (.928) or goals against average (2.09).
Since Holtby came into the league in 2010-2011, only Tim Thomas and Jake Allen had better goals against averages than Holtby (2.04 for each; minimum: 1,000 minutes), and he ranks fifth in save percentage. Holtby also is tied for third among this group in shutouts. Only Corey Crawford (51) has more wins in that span of postseason games than Holtby (49). He goes into this series having been one of the few bright spots in the preliminary phase for the Caps, posting a 1.98 goals against average and a 9.25 save percentage.
On the other side, the Caps will likely face an old teammate, although long removed by this stage of his career. Semyon Varlamov was taken by the Caps with the 23rd overall pick of the 2006 Entry Draft, the third goalie taken (Jonathan Bernier was taken 11th, and Riku Helenius was taken 15th) and selected on pick after the Philadelphia Flyers took Claude Giroux. He has assembled a rather impressive resume over his 12-year career, on the brink of playing in his 500th regular season game in the NHL (he has 493 appearances, 16th in the league since he entered in 2008-2009). He has 232 career wins (21st since he entered the league) and 21 shutouts (tied for 21st). His underlying numbers, however, are a bit less impressive. Of 58 goalies with at least 10,000 minutes played since he came into the league, Varlamov ranks 42nd in goals against average (2.67), and 23rd in save percentage (.915). Until this season, his playoff numbers were not particularly noteworthy (13-13, 2.57, .915), but in the preliminary round just completed against Florida, he was 3-1, 1.77, .932.
Who’s Hot ‘n’ Not?
For the Capitals over the last ten games of the regular season…
- Alex Ovechkin posted eight goals; he also led the team with ten points.
- Nicklas Backstrom recorded eight assists.
- In an odd circumstance, the Caps had three players with game winning goals, all right wingers. Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, and Richard Panik had one apiece.
- Wilson led the team with 39 credited hits; John Carlson led the team with 19 blocked shots.
- Carlson was 0-for-25 shooting, the most shots on goal over the ten games without a goal.
- Brenden Dillon did not record a point, and he is still looking for his first point as a Capital.
For the Islanders over the last ten games of the regular season…
- Jordan Eberle led the Islanders with six goals.
- Mathew Barzal posted 11 assists and led the team with 12 points.
- Eberle and Anders Lee had the only game winning goals in the 10 game stretch.
- Anthony Beauvillier was the only forward to play in all ten games and fail to record a goal.
- Of the seven defensemen to dress over this span of games, Johnny Boychuk (seven games) and Scott Mayfield (ten games) failed to record a point.
- Matt Martin led the team with 39 credited hits; Josh Bailey had two. Ryan Pulock led the team with 31 blocked shots.
Looks at Rooks
This was not a season for rookie breakthroughs with the Caps. Only three rookies dressed for games, and only for a total of 15 games at that. None of the trio of Martin Fehervary (six games), Tyler Lewington (six games), or Beck Malenstyn (three games) scored a goal, and only Fehervary had an assist. With John Carlson’s status for the series still in some doubt, Fehervary (who played one game in the round robin) could get a sweater. He is almost certainly the only rookie who will dress among the skaters. In goal, Ilya Samsonov’s fine rookie season (16-6-2, 2.55, .913, one shutout) will not extend to the postseason due to injury. If a rookie gets the call, it would be Vitek Vanecek, who has yet to make an appearance in the NHL. With the Hershey Bears this season, he was 19-10-1, 2.26, .917, with two shutouts.
On the other hand, the Islanders dressed four rookie skaters this season. Defenseman Noah Dobson, the 12th overall pick of the 2018 Entry Draft, was the leader in games played (34) and posted a scoring line of 1-6-7, minus-1. Forward Kieffer Bellows (drafted 19th overall in the 2016 Entry Draft) posted two goals and an assist in eight games with the Isles, while forwards Otto Koivula (fourth round pick in 2016) and Oliver Wahlstrom (11th overall pick in 2018) were held without a point in 12 and nine games, respectively. No rookie appeared for the Islanders in their elimination round series against Florida.
“Special” would not describe special teams for either the Capitals or the Islanders for the most part. At the high level, the Caps were a top-ten team in special teams index (power play plus penalty kill percentages), ranking tenth at 102.0. That was fueled by a sixth-ranked penalty kill (82.6 percent), but as noted above, even the penalty kill deteriorated quite a bit after the All-Star Game/bye break, ranking 21st in the league with a 78.6 percent penalty kill over 20 games.
The power play never seemed to live up to the potential for the Caps this season, given the talent it employs. It started well, with a fifth-ranked unit in October (25.5 percent), but the air leaked out of the balloon, as the power play results by month indicate:
- November: 25.0 percent/6th
- December 12.5 percent/29th
- January: 18.2 percent/21st
- February: 17.7 percent/19th
- March: 9.1 percent/T-27th
Part of the issue was Alex Ovechkin scoring power play goals at a diminished pace. His 13 goals in 68 games tied for the second-lowest season total of power play goals of his career (he had seven in 79 games in 2010-2011). He was on a pace to finish with 15, which would have ranked 12th among his 15 NHL seasons. T.J. Oshie also finished in double digits in power play goals (10), one short of his career high (11, set in 2015-2016 with the Caps), but seven other Caps combined for a total of only 19 power play goals. The result was a power play that finished under 20 percent for a season (19.4 percent) for the first time since 2011-2012 (16.7 percent) and perhaps of more concern continues a downward trend in efficiency:
- 2016-2017: 23.1
- 2017-2018: 22.5
- 2018-2019: 20.8
- 2019-2020: 19.4
The Caps’ penalty kill finished the season highly ranked, but that fade over the last 20 games is a concern. On the other hand, they were one of three teams with a perfect penalty kill record in the preliminary phase of the post season (8-for-8). Those eight shorthanded situations faced were a good sign, to a point. The blemish there was having to face the Flyers six times while shorthanded. But will that matter? In 17 games in which the Caps faced five or more shorthanded situations in the regular season, they were 80-for-95 (84.2 percent), a fine kill rate, and they has a win-loss record of 10-5-2. They key, unsurprisingly, is shutting opponents down, however many opportunities they get. The Caps 21-10-4 in the 35 games win which they did not allow a power play goal, 17-6-3 in the 26 games in which they allowed one power play goal, and they were 3-4-1 when allowing two power play goals (they did not allow more in any game this season).
On the other side, the Islanders were not very special on either side of special teams. Their special teams index of 98.0 ranked 23rd in the league and was the product of a poor power play and a mediocre penalty kill.
Their power play (17.3 percent) ranked 24th in the league, which is not especially surprising given the history of the Islander penalty kill. Since 2005-2006, the Islanders finished a season over 20 percent on the power play only once (23.2 percent in 2017-2018). Over that time they have averaged 17.4 percent, almost exactly where they finished the 2019-2020 season. While this year’s Islander power play had a measure of balance – 12 different players recorded power play goals – they lacked a go-to power play finisher. No Islander had as many as five power play goals. Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, and Jordan Eberle tied for the team lead with four apiece.
The penalty kill was better, but not elite by any means. But again, this is entirely consistent with recent Islander history. Their 80.6 penalty kill rate was the sixth best they posted in the last 15 seasons. It is also close to their aggregate penalty kill over those last 15 seasons (80.0 percent).
What the Islanders bring on the penalty kill is recent success, but no too recent. They finished the post All-Star Game break with the ninth-best penalty kill in the league (84.6 percent). Their return to the ice for the elimination round series against Florida was not as successful. They were 10-for-14 on the PK, the 71.4 percent kill rate tied for 21st among the 24 teams participating in the preliminary phase.
One thing the Islanders were able to avoid, testimony to their team discipline, were games with high penalty kill volumes. Only eight times in the regular season did the Islanders face at least five shorthanded situations. But it exposed weaknesses when they did. They allowed power play goals in each of those eight games and went 30-for-42 (71.4 percent), posting a record of 4-3-1. The odd thing about their penalty kill is that five times this season they did not have a shorthanded situation to face. They lost all five games (0-4-1).
Behind the Bench
Can’t say these coaches are unfamiliar with each other. Todd Reirden spent four years as an assistant to Barry Trotz in Washington, culminating in a Stanley Cup, before Trotz went to Long Island, and Reirden took over as head coach of the Caps.
There is, however, quite a gap in experience. Trotz is third on the all-time list of regular season games coached in the NHL (1,674), trailing only Joel Quenneville (1,705) and Scotty Bowman (2,141). He is 14th all-time in postseason games coached (125) and will pass Glen Sather (127) for 13th place in this series. He is one of 53 coaches in NHL history to win a Stanley Cup.
On the other side, Reirden has 151 regular season games of head coaching experience (all with the Caps) and only ten games of postseason experience, including the round robin phase of this postseason just completed.
With Trotz, there is no mystery. His teams will be structured, disciplined, attentive in the defensive end of the ice, responsible. You’re not going to see fireworks in an Islander game. The Islanders averaged a total of 5.57 goals scored (their own and their opponents’) per game. Only four teams featured less total scoring (Los Angeles: 5.52; Arizona: 5.32; Columbus: 5.18; and Dallas: 5.10). Only nine times in 68 games did the Isles post five or more goals (not including Gimmick goals), one of those against the Caps. They are not a score-in-bunches team. On the other hand, they held opponents to one or no goals 14 times, winning 13 of those instances. Looking at the other side of things, the Isles allowed five or more goals nine times this season and lost them all (0-8-1). Trotz’ teams, when successful, are the constrictor that squeezes, squeezes, and squeezes, and eventually the opponent succumbs.
On the other hand, it is difficult, or perhaps too early, to pigeon-hole Reirden into a category. He was successful in molding the defense when he was an assistant, but at the top of the food chain and with as much offensive talent as he has on the roster, his governing philosophy is a bit harder to identify. “Wide Open” might be a label to use. The Caps ranked third in the league this season in total goals scored, for and against (6.49). Last year, they ranked seventh (6.36). Washington is one of only three teams in the league to average scoring and allowing at least three goals per game in each of the last two seasons (Florida and Toronto are the others). Winning when scoring has been relatively easy for the Caps this season (19-1-1 when scoring five or more goals), a lot less so when they don’t (5-12-3 when scoring two or fewer goals, not including Gimmick goals). Wild west shootouts don’t scare this team; tight, low scoring games are more of a concern.
The Caps will win if…
They get out to leads and force the Islanders out of their comfort zone. Early pressure on goalie Semyon Varlamov, both in terms of shots and making him make plays with the puck, could allow the Caps to do just that. The Caps have done a fine job this season of shutting down the Islanders late. This will have to continue in order to be successful.
The Islanders will win if…
The game is played at, by hockey standards, a glacial pace. Frustrating Caps break outs (and the Caps getting frustrated over it), denying easy entries on power plays, lots of whistles. If this is the style of game played, the Islanders will be very happy.
In the end…
There might not be an opening round series than this one that pits two entirely different styles against one another. The Islanders win with structure and discipline. In that sense, they are one-dimensional; they can only win that way on a reliable basis over a series. If the game gets away from them, they lack the capacity for big comebacks. The Caps have more skill up front, on the blue line, and are more consistent in goal. They can win “playing big,” pounding a team into submission, they can win with top-six skill, they can win with Braden Holtby playing like he did in the round robin. They have more weapons, more ways to win.