The Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders will face off in the playoffs for the first time since 1993 when they met in the Patrick Division semifinals. In that series, it was Dale Hunter’s brutal hit on Pierre Turgeon that made headlines after Game Six.
The Islanders certainly have the post-season edge, having won five out of six rounds. They took home three straight victories from 1983 to 1985. Washington took their lone series in 1986, sweeping them three games to zilch. This all might seem like ancient history, but there is a component that could come into play in the form of the Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders will say goodbye to the facility at the end of the season and one has to imagine the home crowd will be hot for the opening round.
In terms of the 2014-2015 regular season, they faced off four times and the home team won each time. Given how the atmosphere will be at Nassau, that could spell trouble for the Islanders because they lack that home field advantage. Game One goes in Washington on Wednesday.
Alex Ovechkin obviously leads the way for the Capitals. He reached at least 50 goals for the sixth time in his career and took home his fifth Rocket Richard Trophy, so he’ll be a house of fire offensively. The 29-year-old shoots the puck a lot, having led the way in the regular season with 395 shots on goal, and he knows how to convert on the power play. He had 25 man-advantage goals, leading the NHL.
Washington will also bring Nicklas Backstrom to the party. The 27-year-old centre had a league-leading 60 assists and totaled 78 points in 82 regular season contests. He’ll either be with or without Ovechkin and he’ll be dangerous either way. Backstrom can power the offence on the power play, plus he’s equally effective five-on-five. He’s also good in the dot, having won over 53 percent of his faceoffs.
The rest of the Capitals will join in support of their top two players and there are some nice surprises in the roster. Marcus Johansson has been one of them, with 47 points on the season in a career-high year. He could play with Ovie and Backstrom. Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr also had solid regular seasons, with each of them floating right around the 20-goal mark.
The Islanders have been able to share the wealth a little this season, but it’s still very much John Tavares’ show. He had 86 points in 82 games and would’ve won the scoring trophy were it not for a late, late run by Jamie Benn. He put up 38 goals and added 48 assists, plus he had 13 goals on the power play and eight game-winners.
Beyond Tavares, the Islanders are better-rounded than they’ve been in the past. Chalk that up to the emergence of Ryan Strome and Brock Nelson at centre ice. The 21-year-old Strome managed 50 points in 81 games while Nelson had 42 points in 82 games. Both put in time with rookie Anders Lee, who scored 25 goals in 76 games and occasionally played with Tavares when Kyle Okposo was out with a detached retina.
Long Island also has Nikolay Kulemin to throw in the mix. The winger has been skating with Tavares and Strome as of late and could help crystallize a tight top line for the first game of the series. Kulemin’s play has predominately been of the defensive variety, which helps bring balance to Tavares’ play and gives him some coverage to be a little more adventurous up-ice.
The Capitals have one of the deepest defensive groups in the NHL. They picked up Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in the off-season. They kept John Carlson, Mike Green and Karl Alzner. And they’ve got one of the best balances between right and left shots in the running. This makes the blueline dangerous from an offensive perspective because Washington loves to activate and fuel the attack.
Carlson and Orpik formed the top pair. Orpik’s job has been to handle the physical aspect of the game and he has certainly done that. He’s a hitting machine, leading all NHL defencemen in the category, and he’ll strike fear into the hearts of the opposition by making them think twice about going into tight spaces. Carlson, meanwhile, provides the offensive punch.
The Islanders counter with the fresh pair of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. The former Bruin and former Blackhawk comprise the top twosome on the blueline and each are locked in for seven years. Boychuk was good for 35 points in 72 games, while Leddy chipped in 37 points in 78 games.
Long Island deepens in pairings with Travis Hamonic, who has cycled through a few partners but still managed to find his pace. Head coach Jack Capuano has options in Calvin de Haan and Brian Strait, the former of whom was the Islanders’ first round pick from 2009. The story here is that de Haan was a healthy scratch in the stretch drive, which could signal a start for Strait.
Braden Holtby runs things in Washington. He had a whopping 73 starts and picked up 41 wins. He saw more shots than any other goalie and still posted a 2.22 goals against average with a .923 save percentage. He had nine shutouts on the year and will be counted on to do an awful lot for the Capitals. And he’ll deliver.
The Islanders, meanwhile, bring Jaroslav Halak to the crease. The club has to hope he’s the answer to their goaltending woes, what with Nabokov not panning out last season. Halak won 38 games in the regular season, but his numbers weren’t stellar. His 2.43 goals against average and .914 save percentage has him in the middle of the pack, but he did manage six shutouts in 59 starts.
This is, as tired a chestnut as it is, a series about goaltending. The offensive firepower is clearly a factor, with Tavares and Ovechkin facing off, but it’s up to Holtby and Halak to hold the fort. If Holtby runs out of gas, he won’t be in it for long. And if Halak isn’t the answer to Long Island’s many crease-related questions, the writing will be on the wall at Nassau Coliseum once and for all.