The Islanders and Capitals face off in the opening round of the 2015 playoffs, beginning Wednesday night in Washington D.C. Both Metropolitan Division rivals finished with 101 points, but the Capitals held the head-to-head tiebreaker to claim home-ice advantage.
“We got to the playoffs for a reason,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said Monday after his club’s first practice of the postseason. “We have 101 points. We have a good hockey club. There are a lot of good hockey clubs that don’t get to play on Wednesday. We get that opportunity to start a new season. Now we have to go out and play hard and do the right things.”
The home team won all four meetings between the Islanders and Capitals this season. The Islanders edged the Caps twice in overtime, winning 3-2 on Thanksgiving Eve and 4-3 on Dec. 29. The Capitals scored a 5-2 win on Nov. 28 and won the most recent meeting 3-2 in a shootout on Feb. 21.
John Tavares scored five points (two goals, three assists) in four games against the Capitals this season, just a fraction of his career-best, 86-point campaign. The Islanders captain scored 38 goals and 48 assists, finishing one-point shy of the NHL scoring title.
While Tavares leads the Islanders attack, the team’s offensive depth is a strength. In total, the Islanders had nine players score 10 or more goals and went 15-12-1 in games where Tavares did not hit the scoresheet; in the previous give seasons, the Isles were 40-89-22 when Tavares was held scoreless.
“This is the time of year where guys have to step up,” Capuano said. “This is their time. We’ve had meetings, we’ve talked about it since day one of training camp. To win a series, you talk about health, goaltending and special teams, but your best players have to be your best players.”
The Islanders got big contributions this season from Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson. Strome finished third on the team with 50 points (17 goals, 33 assists), while Lee and Nelson finished second and third in goal scoring with 25 and 20, respectively. Strome scored five points (one goal, four assists) against Washington this season, while Lee netted three goals and an assist.
The Islanders are awaiting word on Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, as both players missed the final three games of the season due to undisclosed injuries. Both practiced at Nassau Coliseum Monday morning. Mikhail Grabovski has been sidelined since Feb. 19 – missing the final 23 games of the season. He returned to practice on April 6, but there is no official timetable for his return.
The Capitals counter with Alex Ovechkin, the NHL’s leading goal scorer and Nicklas Backstrom, the NHL’s assist leader. Ovechkin ran away with Maurice Richard Trophy, netting 53 goals, including four against the Islanders. His 25 power-play goals also led the league and anchored the NHL’s best man-advantage, which converted at 25.3%. Backstrom finished with a league-high 60 assists, en route to a 78-point season. Ovechkin finished the season with 81 points (53 goals, 28 assists).
“He scored 50 goals for a reason,” Johnny Boychuk said of Ovechkin. “He will get chances, you won’t be able to shut him down completely, but you have to limit them and be in his face a little bit, while staying calm and collected.”
While Ovechkin and the power play created a ton of offense this season, the Capitals depth should not be underestimated. The Capitals have a 50-goal scorer, three 20-goal scorers and 10, 10-goal scorers. The Capitals enter the postseason relatively healthy, as Jay Beagle is the only player on that list who is on injured reserve.
“It’s a team that everybody picked at the beginning of the year and they finished where they finished for a reason,” Capuano said. “They have a great power play, a goaltender that plays the puck very well. They have a veteran lineup and a big team. We have to play our game because we know what the Caps are going to bring.”
Both teams added veteran pieces and impact players to the back end last summer. The Islanders added Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, a pair of Stanley Cup champions with the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, respectively. Leddy set a career-high with 10 goals and matched his previous high of 37 points, while Boychuk set new career-highs in goals (nine), assists (26) and points (35). Both were brought in for their leadership and playoff experience. Boychuk (79 games) and Leddy (54 games) have the most playoff experience on the Islanders blue line – trade deadline acquisition Tyler Kennedy has played 76 playoff games.
The Capitals signed former Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen over the summer to bolster their blue line. Orpik won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with the Penguins and brings 92 games of postseason experience. The defensive defenseman went goalless in his first year with the Caps, but added 19 assists. Niskanen put up 31 points (four goals, 27 assists) in his first season in Washington including five points (one goal, four assists) against the Islanders.
Beyond Orpik and Niskanen, the Capitals boast a very offensive-minded blue line. John Carlson was the Capitals third-leading scorer with 55 points (12 goals, 43 assists), while Mike Green had his best season since 2009-10, netting 45 points (10 goals, 35 assists).
“They are proven, they have a lot of experience back there,” Tavares said. “They have veteran guys with good size who do a good job of taking the body and protecting the front of the net. We have to find ways to get to the middle of the ice, create opportunities and wear them down, make them play tough minutes.”
The biggest defensive variable in this series could be Travis Hamonic. The physical defenseman fills out the Islanders “Big 3” with Leddy and Boychuk and that trio is essential for the Islanders success. The Islanders are 39-18-6 in 63 games with all three in the lineup and 8-10-1 in the other 19 other games. Hamonic left Friday’s Islanders-Penguins game in the first period – a game the Islanders won – and did not return, missing the season finale against the Blue Jackets – a game the Islanders lost.
“We don’t have any update on him at this point and we’ll take it day-by-day,” Capuano said of Hamonic.
The Islanders recalled 2012 first-round pick Griffin Reinhart as insurance Monday.
While the Islanders and Capitals are two offensively-gifted teams, they both have a strong foundation in net.
Jaroslav Halak set a variety of Islanders goaltending records this season, setting the single-season wins record (38) addition to winning 11 games in a row through November and December. Halak is looking to recapture his playoff form from 2010, when he led the Montreal Canadiens to upset series wins over the Penguins and the Capitals. He went 2-0-0 against the Capitals this season.
Braden Holtby stepped up for the Capitals this season, shouldering the heaviest workload in the league. Holtby played a league-high 73 games, going 41-20-10. The 25-year-old Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native finished seventh in save percentage (.923), fifth in goals against average (2.22) and second in wins and shutouts (nine). He started all four games against the Islanders this season, going 2-0-2.
The Islanders and Capitals meet in the postseason for the first time since 1993, when the Islanders defeated the Capitals in six games.
The 1993 series is best-remembered for Dale Hunter injuring Pierre Turgeon after Turgeon scored the series-clinching goal in game six. The other iconic Isles-Caps playoff moment was Pat LaFontaine’s quadruple-OT winner in the 1987 Easter Epic. This is the seventh playoff meeting all-time between the Isles and Caps, with the Islanders holding a 5-1 advantage.
Series seven – and the quest for the Cup – gets underway Wednesday.