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Capitals, Islanders set for first series in 22 years

NHL.com @NHL

One of the great old Patrick Division rivalries is back on center stage in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders haven't met in the playoffs since the 1993 Patrick Division Semifinals, a series most remembered for Dale Hunter's hit on Pierre Turgeon late in Game 6, which the Islanders won to eliminate the Capitals.

The Islanders have won five out of the six playoff series between the two teams, including three straight from 1983-85. New York won the Stanley Cup in 1983, the last of its run of four straight championships. The Islanders also advanced to the Final in 1984.

Washington's lone series win against the Islanders came in a 3-0 sweep in the 1986 Patrick Division Semifinals.

The only part of the history between Washington and New York which will play a role in this series is Nassau Coliseum, which will be vacated by the Islanders at the end of the season for a move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

It's a good bet to count on Islanders fans to make the old building on Hempstead Turnpike shake during this postseason. And, yes, it does actually shake, or at least the press box does.

The modern version of this Metropolitan Division rivalry features two of the best players in the NHL, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and Islanders captain John Tavares. They battled each other for the Art Ross Trophy throughout the season and Ovechkin won his sixth Rocket Richard Trophy with a League-best 53 goals.

Ovechkin scored five points (four goals) in four games against the Islanders. Tavares matched him with five points (two goals).

It was a home-rink-dominated four-game season series; each team won its two home games. The Islanders defeated the Capitals in overtime twice at Nassau Coliseum; the Capitals defeated the Islanders once in regulation and once in a shootout at Verizon Center.

Washington's League-best power play was 3-for-9 against the Islanders, but New York outscored Washington on special teams 5-3. The Islanders were 4-for-13 on the power play and had a shorthanded goal.

The Capitals and Islanders are similar in how they want to possess the puck and quickly attack off the rush, but the matchup to watch is the Islanders' speed and forecheck against the Capitals' physicality and skill.

Washington is known as one of the heavier teams to play against in the Eastern Conference but has the League's best power play. New York is considered one of the fastest teams and one of the most aggressive on the forecheck.

Forwards

Left wing Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom are capable of dominating offensively whether they play on the same line or are split. Ovechkin scored at least 50 goals for the sixth time and won his fifth Rocket Richard Trophy.

"[Ovechkin] can change a game in so many different ways," coach Barry Trotz told USA Today. "He can change it with his physicality. He can change it with pure skill, 1-on-1, or change it with high-skill execution with a quick strike on the power play or the rush."

Backstrom also ranked among the NHL scoring leaders and facilitated the offense at even strength and on the power play. He killed penalties and won more than 53 percent of his faceoffs.

Left wing Marcus Johansson has played with and away from Ovechkin and Backstrom and set career-highs in goals and points. Right wings Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, and center Eric Fehr, had 20 goals. Left wing Curtis Glencross provided a threat on a bottom-six line since being acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames. And rookies Andre Burakovsky, a left wing, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, a center, have done well when placed in prominent roles.

The fourth line of center Brooks Laich, right wing Tom Wilson and center Michael Latta has chipped in with offense and has been a physical, grinding unit that has provided energy and worn down defenses.

The belief was hiring Barry Trotz as coach would stifle the offense, but the Capitals are averaging more goals per game and their possession numbers are up.

The Islanders have been top-heavy at forward in recent years, relying too much on center John Tavares to have success. Things were different this season, mainly because centers Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson and rookie Anders Lee emerged. The three spent a large portion of the season skating on the same line; Lee also spent time with Tavares when Kyle Okposo was out with a detached retina.

Tavares enjoyed another stellar season and finished among the League's top scorers. His defensive play seemed to improve once left wing Josh Bailey was placed on his line, but late-season injuries forced coach Jack Capuano to move players. Tavares spent the last few games of the regular season skating with left wing Nikolay Kulemin and Strome.

Kulemin, who many thought would bolster the offense when he signed as a free agent last summer, has instead been most valuable in a defensive role. Center Mikhail Grabovski, who joined the same day they signed Kulemin, hasn't played since Feb. 19 because of an upper-body injury but could be ready for Game 1.

The fourth line of left wing Matt Martin, center Casey Cizikas and right wing Cal Clutterbuck is solid defensively and has the capability of providing offense. One of Clutterbuck's best assets is his ability to draw penalties.

Defensemen

The offseason additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, combined with holdovers John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Mike Green, gave the Capitals one of the deepest, most skilled units in the League.

They have an even split of left-shot (Orpik, Alzner, Tim Gleason) and right-shot (Carlson, Niskanen and Green) among their top six.

Carlson put up career-best numbers in goals and points playing on the top pair with Orpik. Signed during the summer to provide a physical presence, Orpik has done that, leading NHL defensemen and finishing in the top five in hits.

The second pair of Niskanen and Alzner has been solid, with Niskanen providing offense and Alzner supporting him with solid defensive-zone play.

The additions cut into Green's ice time but he's done more with less. His 45 points are the most he's had since back-to-back 70-point seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

Gleason, acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes in February, has been a solid, physical player on the third pair.

The Capitals have depth with Nate Schmidt, Cameron Schilling and Steve Oleksy all having NHL experience.

Washington cut its goals-against per game to 2.43 this season from 2.79 last season, and its shots-against per game to 28.9 from 33.5 last season.

This was the biggest question mark heading into training camp, but it solidified when general manager Garth Snow acquired Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks a week before the regular season. Leddy and Boychuk make up New York's top pairing, and each signed a seven-year contract extension during the season.

Travis Hamonic had different partners on the second pairing. Calvin de Haan, a first-round pick in 2009, was a healthy scratch down the stretch, replaced by Brian Strait. Capuano could decide to go back to de Haan.

Lubomir Visnovsky and Thomas Hickey provide steadiness on the third pair, and Visnovsky is capable of chipping in offensively.

Goalies

Braden Holtby started opening night and hasn't had many days off since. His 73 games tied Olie Kolzig for the most in a season in Capitals history, and since the 2007-08 season Holtby is one of 11 goaltenders to start at least 72 games in a season.

None of the extra work hurt him; his 41 wins were a career-best and tied Kolzig for most in a season. His goals-against average and save percentage ranked in the top 10 in the League.

He also appeared to get stronger as the playoffs approached; he was 12-4-1 with a .916 save percentage and three shutouts in 18 games in March and April.

"He's a workhorse," Trotz told CSNWashington.com. "He's sort of a blue-collar work ethic with white-collar skill."

Holtby, who played more than 50 games as a professional once prior to this season, said he's enjoyed all the work.

"I like playing," Holtby told CSNWashington.com. "It's the reason we play hockey. I like to be able to play a lot. But at the same time you don't want to get complacent. I want to make sure I'm prepared for every single one of them. That's something I pride myself on, my mental game. It's what's gotten me to this level and I like challenging myself."

Snow rolled the dice with Evgeni Nabokov last season and things didn't work out, so shoring up the goaltending became his No. 1 priority. He acquired the rights to Jaroslav Halak from the Washington Capitals and signed him to a four-year contract before he hit the open market.

Halak was solid in his first season with New York, winning 37 games with six shutouts. He's had prior success in the playoffs, helping the Montreal Canadiens reach the Eastern Conference Final in 2010.

The Islanders began the season with Chad Johnson as the backup, but he struggled and was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for Michael Neuvirth prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. Neuvirth hasn't been particularly sharp since the trade (.881 save percentage in five games), but likely won't play unless Halak is injured.

Coaches

The Capitals hired a string of first-year coaches, but the experienced Trotz has proven to be what the Capitals needed.

Trotz answered all the questions about how he would get along with Ovechkin; in addition to leading the League in goals and ranking in the top-five in the scoring race, Ovechkin has a plus rating after being a minus-35 last season.

Trotz managed to improve the Capitals defensively while not sacrificing any offense. He also turned the Capitals into a better possession team; this season they have a shot-attempts percentage (SAT%) of 51.25, a notable increase from their 47.68 percent last season.

Capuano had his most successful season. He tried several line combinations to try to get out of an offensive funk and won't be shy to experiment in the playoffs.

This is Capuano's second trip in three seasons. He had success developing young players this season, particularly Strome, Nelson and Lee. It will be interesting to see how Capuano helps them along as they face their biggest test.

Special teams

Any team with Ovechkin has the best power-play performer in the League. Ovechkin has 175 power-play goals since the start of the 2005-06 season; next on the list is Thomas Vanek of the Minnesota Wild with 118.

Backstrom knows how to find Ovechkin, but the Capitals also have weapons from the top of the zone. Green, Carlson and Niskanen all can contribute.

The penalty kill dipped slightly from last season. Not having Laich and Jay Beagle for stretches because of injury forced other players to move into their roles. Exacerbating the problem has been Washington averaging more than 10 penalty minutes per game, which ranks among the 10 most penalized teams in the League.

The Islanders boast plenty of weapons on the power play but have been guilty of trying to be too fancy and will need to shoot more when the opportunity arises.

With Leddy and Visnovsky as quarterbacks, the Islanders have two capable units. Capuano isn't shy to use four forwards, with center Frans Nielsen or Okposo playing the other point.

The penalty kill got off to a disastrous start and spent the majority of the season at or near the bottom of the League. But it was fantastic late in the season and had a stretch when it killed 58 of 64 (90.6 percent) during 26 games.

Series changer

Evgeny Kuznetsov
Center - WSH
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 37
SOG: 127 | +/-: 10
Evgeny Kuznetsov -- The rookie center started slowly adjusting to playing center for the first time, but has gotten better in the final weeks of the season, to the point where Trotz has felt confident enough that he can split Backstrom and Ovechkin to create two offensive lines. With Kuznetsov excelling with Ovechkin, Backstrom has helped spark Johansson.

"[Kuznetsov's] play has allowed us to flip-flop them (Kuznetsov and Backstrom) when I want to and it's hard for matchups," Trotz told the Washington Post. "If they want to stack one, I can flip-flop them, or if I get a good matchup you saw me put [Backstrom] out there sometimes and [Kuznetsov] can slide around. He gives us lots of flexibility in those two lines."

John Tavares
Center - NYI
GOALS: 38 | ASST: 48 | PTS: 86
SOG: 278 | +/-: 5
John Tavares -- Not many players are capable of taking over a series, but Tavares is so driven and so dangerous offensively and was born to play at this time of year.

Tavares' name came up in Hart Trophy conversations again this season, and rightfully so. He is undeniably the one irreplaceable player on the roster. Regardless of which players are on his line, Tavares makes them better. His ability to provide dramatics makes the Islanders capable of winning their first playoff series in 22 years.

Series changer

CAPITALS WILL WIN IF ... Holtby's regular-season workload doesn't tire him out in the postseason. Of the 55 goaltenders to play at least 72 games in a season, four have done it in a season when they won the Stanley Cup; the most recent was Martin Brodeur with the New Jersey Devils in 2002-03. Holtby hasn't shown any signs of wear and tear so far, but the playoffs are an entirely different element.

ISLANDERS WILL WIN IF ... One could make a strong case that the Islanders didn't get past the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013 because their goaltending wasn't good enough. With Halak in the mix, the Islanders hope there won't be any setbacks this time. The offense is good enough to score three to four goals per game, so the Islanders have a strong chance to advance if Halak can rekindle some of that 2010 magic he had with Montreal.

Written by Dan Rosen, Brian Compton and Adam Kimelman

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