NEW YORK ISLANDERS (26-16-6) VS. WASHINGTON CAPITALS (35-9-4)
7:30 P.M. VERIZON CENTER, NBCSN, WNYE 91.5 FM, WRHU 88.7 FM, LI NEWS 103.9 FM
1. ISLES-CAPS II
Given the NHL’s division-based playoff format, the Islanders’ road to a Stanley Cup likely goes through Washington. Sixteen points separate the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals in the Metropolitan, but ask the Islanders and they say the gap between them on the ice is razor-thin.
“They are a team we measure ourselves against, but we believe we’re just as good as them,” Frans Nielsen said.
The Islanders are basing that off of a closely contested seven-game series last spring that was decided by one goal and a closer-than-the-score-would-indicate 4-1 loss earlier this season.
“You lose a game 4-1 that you think you’ve had some chances, and we’ve won some games that you probably don’t think are 4-1 games,” head coach Jack Capuano said.
The Capitals lead the league with 3.29 goals-per-game, while the Islanders are sixth with 2.75. They’re close in goals against per game, Washington allowing 2.25 per game and the Islanders conceding 2.46, both top-10 in the NHL. They both take roughly 30 shots per game; 30.9 for Washington, 30.4 for the Islanders.
“They have a lot of firepower, not only on the back end, but up front,” said Capuano. “This is a team that you have to play structured against, really you have to manage the puck and you have to stay out of the penalty box.”
Thursday’s matchup also pits Washington’s top-ranked power play against the Islanders’ second-ranked penalty kill, a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object.
Make no mistake, the bitter feelings between these teams still linger, even if there is respect for each other’s skill. The Islanders will make those feelings known, as well as the fact that a lead in the standings doesn’t mean anything when the puck gets dropped at 7:30 p.m.
2. OVECHKIN RETURNS TO LINEUP:
After missing the NHL All-Star Game with a lower-body injury, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin will return to the lineup against the Islanders.
Ovechkin is tied for second in the NHL with 28 goals this season, two back of Patrick Kane, though the Russian superstar has played eight fewer games. Ovechkin is the best scorer of his generation, netting 503 since joining the league in the 2005-06 season, more than any other player in the last 10 years.
In 38 career games against the Islanders, Ovechkin has 42 points (27G, 15A). He has 42 points (28G, 14A) in 46 games this season.
3. NELSON NETS 20TH, TIES CAREER-HIGH:
Brock Nelson scored his 20th goal of the season Tuesday, matching his career-high set last season. It took the Warroad, Minn., native 79 games to reach 20 last season, compared to 48 this season, though he’s averaging the same amount of shots per game (2.3). Nelson has goals in two straight and seven over his last eight games. He is the Islanders’ leading goal scorer and his 30 points rank fourth on the team’s leaderboard. Nelson scored the Islanders’ lone goal vs. the Capitals earlier this season.
4. HOLT .45:
The Capitals are known for their potent attack, but goaltender Braden Holtby has been one of Washington’s best – and most consistent – players this season. Holtby leads the NHL with 30 wins and boasts a 30-5-3 record, earning points in 33 of 39 games for the Capitals this season. His supporting numbers are also near the top of the league, as he holds the fifth-best goals-against average (2.07) and sixth-best save percentage (.929).
Capuano summed it up in their last meeting:
“The way [Holtby] is playing right now, that team, they score two or three goals and the game is over,” Capuano said. “You spot those guys a couple of goals… they’re going to be tough to beat.”