After taking a brief look at both the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders in the last post, the Capitals beat the Boston Bruins in the final round robin game to secure the third seed and a first round matchup with the New York Islanders. The two sides kick off their best-of-seven series today at 3 pm (unless they get postponed by the Bruins and Hurricanes going to five overtimes).
The teams last met in the postseason five years ago, when the Caps won in seven games. The last time the Caps saw Islanders coach Barry Trotz in the playoffs, he was hoisting the Cup with them. Now the two sides will meet in what could be a tumultuous series that could swing either way.
The Capitals round robin record of 1-1-1 is far from encouraging, and the playoff-level intensity just didn’t seem to be there, but there isn’t much reason to panic just yet. The shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning could have gone either way, that’s just the nature of shootouts. The loss to the Philadelphia Flyers also hurt, but Philly blew away everyone in their path en route to the top seed in the East.
The lack of intensity may be the biggest concern, but with the real win-or-go home games starting up, that will hopefully change. The team was without Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson for the entire round robin seeding process, but he will be a game time decision for Game 1. Lars Eller, meanwhile, left the bubble for the birth of his son last week and will be forced to miss Game 1.
Once Eller clears the quarantine and testing protocols and gets back into skating condition, he will be able to slide right back into the lineup, but for now Travis Boyd has been slotting in as the third line center. Boyd scored the team’s lone goal against the Flyers in the second round robin game.
Getting back to full strength will be key for playing an Islanders team that boasts a productive top six and a patented Trotzian lockdown defensive system. The Isles made easy work of the Florida Panthers during the Qualifying Round, winning in four games.
The Caps are much stronger than Florida, but with the Isles already rolling, the Caps will need to be at that playoff intensity immediately. It certainly doesn’t help that Trotz knows the inside and out of the Caps’ organization.
Based on the Caps’ three round robin games and the Islanders’ four Qualifying games, here are three players from each team that I would label as big X-Factors:
Alex Ovechkin (WSH) and Mathew Barzal (NYI)
It isn’t really a hot take to label each team’s best and most marketable player as a major influence in the series, but based on how the two have performed so far, even more eyes should be on them for Game 1 and beyond.
Ovechkin went off in the exhibition game against Carolina, scoring twice and assisting a third goal, but he has yet to tally a point since. This team has failed in the postseason despite Ovi’s huge production, so if the Great 8 isn’t involved in the offense, it will be a short postseason for the Caps.
I expect Ovi & Co. to ramp up the intensity now that the real games are starting. It’s worth taking into account that the Caps faced the three other top teams in the conference while the Isles played the 10th seed, but the pressure is there for Ovi, and really the rest of the top six.
Barzal, meanwhile, is the biggest name on the Islanders, but he hasn’t even been the biggest producer in these playoffs so far. Second line winger Anthony Beauvillier is leading the team with five points, and top six forwards Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson have been strong as well.
Barzal isn’t far behind with one goal and two assists, so what makes the 22-year-old an X-Factor is if he truly starts performing like the franchise face he is, that could take the Isles above and beyond. Getting help from the supporting cast is certainly a good thing, but it will be the wunderkind who swings the series.
Dmitry Orlov (WSH) and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (NYI)
With Carlson sidelined, Orlov has taken over most special teams duties and an even bigger role leading the blue line. Frankly, the entire Caps’ defense could be considered an X-Factor; Brenden Dillon has proven a crucial pickup from the trade deadline, and Martin Fehervary could be the missing piece for this unit given his solid showing against the Bruins.
However, Orlov has been up-and-down his entire career, and he will continue to play a significant role even after Carlson returns. With the Isles’ top six already humming entering this series, it will be up to Orlov to lead the defensive efforts and help out netminder Braden Holtby.
Defense has been a question mark all year, and if Carlson remains out and Orlov struggles, I don’t trust Dillon, Michal Kempny and the relatively unproven Nick Jensen and Jonas Siegenthaler to hold down the fort on their own. Orlov has to set the tone.
Pageau, like Dillon for Washington, has proven to be a valuable trade deadline pickup for the Isles this year. With three goals in four games from the third line, Pageau gives the Isles the depth at center that all successful teams need. There isn’t much to look at beyond the Islanders’ top six forwards, but Pageau is an exception.
He will need to keep that efficiency up for the Islanders to be successful. It takes more than two lines to advance in the postseason, so if Pageau isn’t up to snuff, the entire third line suffers and suddenly New York won’t look as deep.
Braden Holtby (WSH) and Devon Toews (NYI)
Again, Holtby isn’t exactly a lowkey player to pick here, but with Ilya Samsonov unavailable, his role becomes even more important. Holtby led the team to the Cup two years ago after being supplanted as starter in the regular season and winning his job back in the First Round. That didn’t quite happen this year, but the rookie Samsonov had the better numbers entering the stoppage.
Holtby, meanwhile, put up his worst stats in awhile, but he’s looked sharp in the three round robin games. He’s allowed six goals on 80 shots, giving him a .925 save percentage and a 1.98 goals against average.
The Islanders have a bit of a 1a/1b situation in net, with former Capital Semyon Varlamov as the starter with Thomas Greiss serving as a backup more than capable of taking over if a switch is needed. The Caps no longer have that luxury; backing up Holtby is Vitek Vanecek, who has zero games of real NHL experience. Holtby will have to be in 2018 form for the Caps to advance.
Toews is the lone defenseman on the Islanders’ first power play unit, giving him a sneaky important role as a two-way player. New York was 4-for-16 on the power play during the Florida series, and Toews assisted three of the goals.
With just one other assist at even strength, the power play has done wonders for Toews’ production at this point. During the regular season, only five of his 22 assists came on the power play, so Toews is certainly capable of relying on more than just man-advantage cookies to create points, but he has been extra lethal on the power play as of late.
The Caps are very familiar with a defenseman racking up assists while running the point for the power play (see: #Johnny4Norris), so it will be up to them to stay out of the penalty box. Even with Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech headlining the defensive unit, don’t let Toews slip by unnoticed.
Players who need to step up for their side:
Jakub Vrana (WSH) – He’s in the middle of a goal-scoring drought and went without a point in the round robin. Vrana, like Ovechkin, needs to start chipping in again.
Anders Lee (NYI) – The Isles’ captain has had enough people step up for him, but he also went without a point in the Qualifying Round. For a first liner, that can’t be the norm.
Ilya Kovalchuk (WSH) – With Eller out to start the series and Carl Hagelin not being a big point scorer, Kovalchuk has to help out Boyd on the third line offensively. The fire has to be burning extra hot in the 36-year-old Russian’s belly if he wants to win his first Stanley Cup.
Derick Brassard (NYI) – As mentioned, Pageau could use help on the third line. Brassard seems like the best candidate.
Strengths & Weaknesses
While I’ve put together my own observations about the Islanders, I’m not as familiar with the team as a true fan. For a more in-depth look at the team’s biggest strength and weakness entering this series, you’ll be hearing from someone who checks that box.
Nick Jones is a Long Island native who has spent his whole life rooting for the Islanders and is one of the biggest fans I know. He also happens to be my cousin. With plenty of family on the Island supporting rival New York teams, there is no shortage of smack talk when New York plays DC, especially in the playoffs.
It’s been five years since the two sides last met, so a lot has changed between both rosters, notably former franchise center John Tavares departing in free agency back in 2018, so let’s get a fan perspective to see what the Caps will be dealing with when they meet for this series.
From the Island
By: Nick Jones
Biggest Strength: Lines 2 & 3
The Islanders obviously have talent on their top line with All-Star Mathew Barzal, captain Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle, who had two goals and an assist in the Qualifying series against the Panthers. And there is much to-do about their fourth line (dubbed the “identity-line”), who match up with most opponents’ top line, led by center Casey Cizikas and flanked by hitters Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. However, it is the two lines in between that have stepped up recently to power the Islanders to Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Second line winger Anthony Beauvillier came alive during the series against the Panthers, registering five points (3g, 2a) in the four games as well as trade-deadline acquisition J.G. Pageau, who added three goals of his own from the third line.
Overall, eight of the 15 goals the Islanders scored in the Qualifying Round came from these two lines, proving that even when the top line may be struggling to convert opportunities, the Islanders have the forward depth to pick up the slack.
Biggest Weakness: Penalties
In the Qualifying series, the Islanders took far too many silly penalties. Attribute that to rust or the referees calling a tighter game, but the fact is the Islanders cannot afford to be down a man, especially against the potent Capitals power play unit.
It is not that the Islanders were a heavily penalized team (as Caps fans know, Coach Barry Trotz would not stand for that), it was the nature and timing of these penalties and the likelihood that it would lead to a goal for the opponent. For example, in Game 3 (the lone loss for the Islanders), goalie Semyon Varlamov handled the puck below the goal line and outside the trapezoid, resulting in a delay of game penalty. Mike Hoffman then slapped it home about 30 seconds into the man-advantage, a goal that proved to be the game-winner for the Panthers.
In the Qualifying Round, the Islanders Penalty Kill ranked dead last in the Toronto bubble at 71.4% (10-for-14). The Capitals were a Top 10 team on the power play during the regular season, converting nearly 20% of the time. If those statistics stay true for this series, the Islanders will be in trouble.
From the District
By: Joe Pohoryles
Biggest Strength: Forward Depth
As mentioned, the Caps haven’t really lit up on offense during their three round robin games, but they still boast one of the deepest lineups in the league. The second line of Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie would be the first line on a handful of other teams across the league, and Richard Panik, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway have come together to form a solid fourth line.
That depth will be huge down the stretch. After all, the team won the Cup with their depth and physical play, which was no better exemplified than the Cup-clinching Game 5 against Vegas, where a player from each line scored in the 4-3 win.
While it’s highly unlikely any of the fourth liners will have a Devante Smith-Pelly-esque explosion, it will be strong play from top to bottom that’ll put the Caps over the top. The quality is there, they just have to start bringing it on the ice.
Biggest weakness: The Defensive Second Pair
I’ve been saying it all year, and any Caps fan that’s watched closely will know this well, but the defense isn’t entirely figured out yet, and that’s a huge concern. Radko Gudas was yanked from the lineup for the third round robin game after proving too much of a liability (ironically, he leads the team with two points so far this postseason).
Against Boston, both Orlov and Fehervary played on the right side, despite being natural left-shot defensemen. Orlov has a shaky past playing on the right, but Fehervary has been touted as a prospect who can play sufficiently on either side.
It was primarily the right-shot on the second pair that was the question mark. When healthy, Carlson has the first pair right-shot locked down, and Dillon, Kempny and Siegenthaler have been playing well on the left. Entering the season, Jensen was pegged to be the right-shot on the second pair, but he has been playing at a third pair level.
If Fehervary continues to play right-shot in the second pair at a competent level, the concern goes way down, but having this many question marks at defense to begin with is not good. Caps fans just have to hope the blue liners play well enough to shut down the revved up Islanders, no matter who the personnel is.