If any team would know exactly how Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders want to play to be successful, it would be their Round 1 opponent in Washington. And that’s because the Capitals won the Stanley Cup when they bought in to Trotz two years ago.
After years and years of failing to climb the mountain, Trotz lifted the Capitals over the hump in 2018, and then left when his contract expired that summer. He landed with the Islanders and took a team that had missed the playoffs in two consecutive years back to the post-season, then upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games. Now the target is his former team.
The Capitals followed their championship with a first-round exit, so Trotz could really leave the organization second-guessing its decision if he can produce another upset in 2020. Washington, though, has been better all-around since Trotz was leading them and should be familiar with the tactics they see on the other side.
Here is a look at the series between the Islanders and Capitals.
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
NY Islanders: 46.45 CF% (29th), 48.65 GF% (23rd), .923 SV% (10th), 7.88 SH% (19th), 100.2 PDO (15th)
Washington: 51.60 CF% (7th), 52.35 GF% (8th), 91.25 SV% (24th), 9.36 SH% (3rd), 1.006 PDO (9th)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
NY Islanders: 17.3 PP% (24th), 80.7 PK% (15th), 189 GF (24th), 190 GA (6th)
Washington: 19.4 PP% (17th), 82.6 PK% (6th), 236 GF (3rd), 212 GA (15th)
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
NY Islanders: 2-2-0
The story of the qualifying round:
The Islanders did what the Islanders do best. They rolled four lines, three defensive pairings and played a sound 200-foot game that didn’t allow the Florida Panthers much space. The tight-checking group also converted on a quarter of their power-play opportunities, which was big considering they were ranked 24th with the man advantage in the regular season.
Anthony Beauvillier was terrific with three goals and a couple assists on a line with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey. Jean-Gabriel Pageau continued to prove he ups the ante in the post-season. Pageau last appeared in the playoffs in 2017 where he shone with the Senators, scoring eight goals, 10 points and winning 54.3 per cent of his faceoffs in 19 games. The trade deadline acquisition scored in three of the four games against Florida, was solid in the faceoff circle and led all forwards in shorthanded ice-time. The top trio of Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle only had three total goals but often carried the play and were a combined plus-10.
The vaunted fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, which was separated for much of the regular season due to various injuries, were their pesky, effective selves. Semyon Varlamov was solid between the pipes but didn’t need to be spectacular.
The Capitals got out of the round robin with a 1-1-1 record and three close games — a shootout loss to Tampa Bay, a two-goal loss to Philadelphia, and a one-goal win over the Bruins.
One of the mysteries around the Caps this year and a huge factor in their playoff hopes was if Braden Holtby could regain form after the break, a la Carey Price. Holtby, a pending UFA, had inferior numbers to battery mate Ilya Samsonov, but the Russian was injured during the pause and didn’t travel to Toronto with the team. There’s no safety net to fall back on now. Holtby got through the round robin with only a few bumps, but an overall solid .925 save percentage.
The Capitals can play you any which way. They were a top four offence in the regular season and also one of the 10 best teams in shots against per game. They have scorers of all sizes: Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin are the big bodies, Jakub Vrana and setup man Nicklas Backstrom a little less so. The Capitals can out-finesse you or play physical. They can be a matchup nightmare.
Washington was without Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson for the round robin and head coach Todd Reirden didn’t commit to him being ready for Game 1 of this series, saying he was “hopeful” Carlson would be fit to play.
NY Islanders X-Factor: Ryan Pulock
These playoffs could end up being a coming out party for Pulock. The 25-year-old defenceman chipped in with one goal, three assists, led his team with 10 blocked shots and was regularly tasked with taking on Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in the qualifying round.
He also made an incredible save in Game 4 that Trotz described as “one of those defining moments” in a series.
He’s not really a household name but Pulock has been the best defenceman on Long Island and the pending restricted free agent could be in for a huge payday in the off-season.
Washington Capitals X-Factor: Braden Holtby
When the season paused in March, Holtby had been passed on the Capitals depth chart by Samsonov and seemed destined to ride out his days in D.C. before leaving as a free agent in the off-season. Now, with Samsonov unavailable due to an injury, the spotlight is suddenly back on Holtby to carry the Capitals through the playoffs.
The former Vezina Trophy winner is coming off the worst season of his 10-year career, with an .897 save percentage and only 25 wins in 47 starts. Holtby got off to a shaky start in the round robin games, allowing five goals in two losses. But in the final matchup with the Bruins, he stood tall, making 30 saves in a 2-1 win.
Holtby is going to need to find that extra gear that made him one of the NHL’s premier goalies only a couple seasons ago. If he doesn’t, the Capitals’ time in the Toronto bubble will be short.