Q1. Where do you think the Caps have the upper hand on the Isles, and where might New York have an advantage?
Luke: The Capitals have the clear advantage in the skill and forward depth department. No offense to guys like Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, but after Barzal there’s a pretty big drop in skill up front. Of course, as we saw with the Toronto and Columbus series, a well-structured team with timely goaltending can edge out skill — and the Caps won’t match the Islanders’ structure, because Reirden, rightfully, wants to keep the game loose to let those offensive talents have free rein. So for the Capitals it will be about finding that balance of offense and not letting the Islanders counter. And of course, Holtby will have to be strong.
Peerless: The Caps have more players with the capacity to raise their game, and a big game moment provides an incentive to do just that. The flip side of this is the fact that the Islanders, a system-oriented, methodical team, seems to be one built to avoid the low lows, but that often means they are not equipped to generate the high highs. Anyone with memories of the late 1980’s/early 1990’s Caps might recognize the species. The Islanders’ advantage is that if they do lure opponents into playing their game – station-to-station, risk averse, waiting for opportunities instead of creating them – they play that game better than the Caps. Getting a lead will be important. In the regular season series, the team that scored first won in all four games, each team scoring first twice and winning those games (although in one game the Caps scored first, they ended up having to come back from a 4-1 deficit to win, 6-4). The Caps can force the Isles to get out of their comfort zone and open things up when they hold a lead; the Isles can choke the life out of a team when they get a lead. This series will turn on which team can impose its style on the proceedings.
J.P.: Where don’t the Caps have the upper hand? They have more skill and depth up front and on the blueline (and I’ll take my chances with Braden Holtby in net). The only place I’d give the Isles a meaningful edge is where it might matter most: behind the bench. The series should be close and you know that Barry Trotz knows how to keep things that way. If it comes down to adjustments, who ya got?
Rob: Caps have the depth advantage throughout the lineup, as JP said. Where that should, in theory, be an advantage is in tight games where someone needs to come up with a goal. Kovalchuk on the third line is a pretty nice luxury there. Where it may be a problem is when the skilled guys get obsessed with scoring skilled goals. The Islanders are more likely to look for dirty goals, and may be more successful at it. Agree with JP on where the Islanders definitely have the advantage—behind the bench.
Alex: The Caps definitely have the skill advantage in this matchup, and it’s not even close. Aside from Mat Barzal and, a few rungs lower, Anders Lee, there isn’t a whole lot to be scared of on the ice. They’re also stronger up and down the lineup, on the blue line (especially if Carlson comes back quickly), and in net. If the Caps play the game we all know they’re capable of playing, they absolutely carry the upper hand into this series. That being said, Barry Trotz’s Islanders could certainly drag the Caps down to play on their level and on their terms. That’s where things could get dangerous.
Becca: I’d agree with most of what was said above regarding the Caps’ strength up front. The Islanders just don’t have an answer for a team that can mix and match its top-six forwards, and any incarnation of the second line could easily be most other team’s top line. That said, I’m not as sold on the Caps’ defensive depth being an advantage - the Isles don’t have a John Carlson but they’ve got some solid blueliners who, thanks to Barry Trotz’s aforementioned structure, don’t necessarily need to be John Carlson.
Which brings me to the Isles’ advantage: Trotz. He’s made a very good career out of taking decent teams and making them good, making good teams great, and making great teams into Cup champs. Are the Isles great? No. Are they capable of being good, and tough to play? Abso-freaking-lutely. The Caps need to tap into whatever leftover lessons they learned from their old bench boss about being disciplined and cashing in on the other team’s mistakes. If they do that, they should win.
Q2. What player on the Islanders concerns you the most?
Luke: Outside the obvious of Barzal, notorious Cap killer Brock Nelson is someone to keep an eye on. He’s always been a huge thorn in the Caps side. Anthony Beauvillier also had a great first round against the Panthers, putting up five points in four games. He’s looking better and better.
Peerless: I’m going to go off the board here. If the Islanders are dictating terms of style, then grinders play an important role, and I’d be watching Tom Kuhnhackl, a player with a lot of postseason experience (58 games). In 13 career regular season games against the Caps, he has three goals (two of them game winners) and seven points (all of them with Pittsburgh, with whom he won two Stanley Cups). Seven points isn’t a lot, but it’s the most he has against any NHL team in his career. If he’s doing damage, the Caps are in trouble.
J.P.: <looks up Islanders’ roster> Besides the obvious guy(s) up front, I suppose I get anxious about Varly staying hot and beating his former team (which would be very pre-2018 Caps). But, honestly, it’s not a terribly intimidating roster - they’re just really well-coached, disciplined and structured.
RP: Toews looks good whenever her plays the Caps and I could see him being a huge part of the Isles’ success. If he is part of a D pair that shuts down and out scores a skilled line for the Caps it will be trouble. Of course, one D can’t have that kind of impact without a strong team effort, but you know the Islanders will be exceptionally well-coached and are going to show up and play hard. Toews can deliver some big plays within that structure.
Alex: I already waxed poetic about how big of a threat Barzal poses to the Caps two days ago, so I’ll go with someone else: Jean-Gabriel Pageau. He only played in seven games with the Islanders before the pause, but he had three goals in four games in the qualifying round against Florida. He’s an excellent two-way player, and he seems to thrive in difficult situations. The Caps should definitely keep an eye on him.
Becca: I’m also going a little off the board and say Cal Clutterbuck. Not because he’s particularly talented (he’s not) or because he’s a Cap-killer (also negative) - but because he’s the kind of pest who can get under an undisciplined team’s skin and cause them to do dumb things. If the Caps focus on their game and not on his antics, they’ll do fine; if they get into a pissing match with the aging pest and let him take someone like Wilson off the ice, it’s only good for New York.
Luke: I really hate predictions. But gun to my head I’ll say Capitals in 6. [Editor’s note: No Lukes were harmed in the making of this roundtable.]
Peerless: I’m not sure what to make of these teams. The Caps looked far too listless at times in the round robin; they are a better team than that when motivated. On the other hand, the Islanders faced a Florida team that looked bad down the stretch (7-10-3 in their last 20 regular season games) and didn’t look any better in the series against the Isles. That 3-1 series win might overstate how well the Islanders were/are playing. Faced with that level of confusion, I’d just revert to type. The Isles are and will be faithful to their system and will try their best to be disciplined; the Caps have more skill and can win in more ways. I’ll go with the Caps in six.
J.P.: Which Caps show up for the series - the one that lost to the Flyers and Bolts or the one that beat the Bruins? That’s a trick question, because if it’s any of those teams, the Caps are going to lose in five or six. But let’s say they get John Carlson back and the top-six returns to some semblance of form, the power play remembers that they’re allowed to score and Braden Holtby stays locked in. If that happens, the Caps could make it a relatively short series. But nothing’s ever easy or short (except the 2018 Final), so I’m going to go with Caps in seven brutal, tight games.
RP: Agree with JP. This should be quicker than it will be but none of the games will be easy, and the Caps will probably have to dig out of an early hole. Caps in 7.
Alex: I agree with the above sentiments that this series will go on longer than it needs to. I also hate predictions, but...Caps in six. And, to be oddly specific because why not, at least two games are going to OT.
Becca: Islanders fans will complain every time Tom Wilson so much as sneezes and call for a 20-game suspension every time he bumps into someone.
Oh, and Caps in six (provided the top-six wakes up and Playoff Holtby sticks around.)