There are some hard feelings between the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals.
They played a grueling seven-game series in last year’s playoffs, a war of attrition between two heavy teams grinding each other down. There were casualties, namely Lubomir Visnovsky, who was knocked out of the series on a hit by Washington’s Tom Wilson. There was passion, written all over the Islanders’ faces after both thrilling wins and devastating losses. Intensity reverberated throughout the stands from Uniondale to D.C., all stemming from what was happening on the ice.
The Capitals won 2-1 in the deciding game and afterwards, honoring playoff tradition, the two teams shook hands. But on the eve of their first meeting this season, there’s a sense that this hatchet is not buried.
“When you have battles like that with teams, those feelings tend to come back pretty quickly in those games,” Cal Clutterbuck said.
Clutterbuck said that walking that fine line between fired up and over the top comes with maturity, but there’s definitely a little extra fire when a top rival comes to town.
“There’s a great rivalry with them now,” Ryan Strome said. “There’s no question that for whoever watched that playoff series, there’s bad blood. The teams matched up pretty well; it came down to one goal in Game 7. Certainly it was a fun series. I expect no different and I expect the atmosphere to be pretty good in the rink tomorrow.”
The playoffs were chapter one in this rising rivalry and chapter two will be written with largely the same characters. The Islanders are icing the same forward corps and the Capitals are relatively intact from last year, save for the addition of T.J. Oshie. With the Islanders’ John Tavares and the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, each team is led by one of the NHL’s elite stars. They’re joined by young talent such as New York’s Brock Nelson and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov. These games could be heated for years to come.
“Obviously we’re two teams that don’t really like each other,” Matt Martin, who will surely be throwing the body Thursday, said. “It makes for a good game and hopefully we come out on top.”
The Metropolitan Division standings add to the intrigue. Washington sits atop the Metro (and the NHL) with 61 points, while the Islanders are number two in the division with 49. The Islanders say this game is a measuring stick, but don’t believe the point gap is representative of how they stack up against Washington.
“Obviously they are the best team in the league right now. It’s a good matchup for us, a good test for us,” Martin said. “They have a big physical team and we have a big physical team.”
Jack Capuano – who will coach his 400th NHL game Thursday – said he wants his team to focus on taking two points from a divisional opponent. He’s brought up the fact that the Islanders missed out on home-ice advantage last year by one point several times this season and doesn’t want to leave any points on the table this year, especially against the division.
“Now we’re coming into the meat of the schedule,” Capuano said. “They are all four-point games where you can separate yourself, so we have to be good.”
Johnny Boychuk (out 4-6 weeks with an upper-body injury) will be out of the Islanders’ lineup, but Travis Hamonic, who missed the entire playoff series with a knee injury, will be in. Harmonic’s rough-and-tumble physical style was missed last year, but should be a welcomed addition, especially with the 227-pound Boychuk out.
There was some good news on the injury front, as goaltender Jaroslav Halak was activated off injured reserve on Tuesday and is available to play in Thursday’s game.
Whether Halak or Thomas Greiss starts for the Islanders, they’ll have to deal with the Capitals’ firepower. Washington is scoring 3.13 goals-per-game, the second-highest in the NHL. Ovechkin leads the team with 21 goals, but 23-year-old Kuznetsov has emerged as a top offensive threat, leading the Capitals with 37 points (13G, 24A). The Capitals are also getting good production from Oshie, who has 14 goals in his first season in D.C. On Wednesday afternoon, they signed former Los Angeles King Mike Richards to a one-year pro-rated contract.
The Capitals aren’t just scoring at a top-tier pace. They are also one of the best teams at keeping the puck out of their net. Washington is second in the NHL in goals against-per-game at 2.15. Braden Holtby leads the NHL with 25 wins (he’s 25-4-2) with a 1.93 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage.
Add an elite offense to elite goaltending and the results speak for themselves. The Capitals are 17-2-2 in their last 21 games.
That’s not to say the Capitals are going to take Thursday’s game lightly. Head coach Barry Trotz told Monumental Network (part of the Capitals’ official website) he’s expecting a “playoff feel.”
“They are a very good hockey team,” the Capitals’ coach said. “They’re very deep. They have four lines; extremely deep, and they’ve got a mobile defense and get good goaltending. We know how hard of a team they are from playing them last year, in the regular season and in the playoffs. I think it will be a real good hockey game.”
The Islanders enter this game as winners of three of their last four, including a 6-5 win over the Dallas Stars on Sunday. Dallas entered Barclays Center leading the league in points, so the Islanders are facing the NHL’s best two games in a row.
They’re hoping to make it two wins in a row. Expect a little hostility in the process.