Capitals-Islanders came down to physical punishment

Rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the go-ahead goal with less than 7 1/2 minutes left in Game 7, and Braden Holtby only needed to make 10 saves Monday night, lifting the Washington Capitals past the New York Islanders 2-1.

For all the talk of offensive stars like Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares entering the Capitals-Islanders series—and there’s no doubt Tavares and Co. served notice that they will be ready for prime time next year in the Barclay’s Center—the 4-3 result swung more on physical play, injuries and the ineffectiveness of special teams.

Ovechkin continued his superhuman scoring feats in the regular season this year, posting his sixth career 50-goal season, but he was relatively well contained in the opening round, scoring only twice. Much of that was the result of an Islanders penalty kill that limited the Capitals’ vaunted power play to just two goals. Despite that containment, the opening round was a resounding loss for the Islanders special teams as New York failed to register a power-play goal on 14 opportunities—the only team in the opening round to go scoreless with the man advantage.

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Ovechkin still led the Capitals in a number of important categories, generating 27 scoring chances on 75 shot attempts, and leading Washington forwards in hits with 31. The other key offensive contributor for Washington was Nicklas Backstrom, who produced three goals and six points. But the Caps’ offence was about more than those two, as the supporting cast chipped in with goals from Evgeny Kuznetzov, Marcus Johansson, Jason Chimera and even Karl Alzner. The Caps got enough pucks past nemesis Jaroslav Halak that his goaltending ended up not being the story of the series.

The Islanders similarly got less scoring than expected from captain Tavares, the league’s second-leading scorer during the regular season. That being said, his overtime winner in game three was definitely key to the series, and he opened the scoring in game six. His six points were far from a massive let down, and he got a decent amount of support with goals from the likes of Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson.

This season, Washington coach Barry Trotz, revamped the Caps’ defensive approach and adopted a heavier style of play often found in the Western Conference. Both were on display throughout the series. And given their size advantages, many assumed the larger Capitals would push the Islanders around, but New York’s fourth line was a virtual wrecking ball, with both Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck registering more than 40 hits in the series. Washington meanwhile had Brooks Orpik, Tom Wilson and Joel Ward exerting a significant impact physically.

If anything decisively swung the control from the Islanders, who at one point led the series 2-1, it was the absence of key players from their lineup. Travis Hamonic and Mikhail Grabovski (who didn’t return from a concussion until game five) were missed in the early going, and injuries suffered by Calvin De Haan, Lubomir Visnovsky and Anders Lee tilted things for the Caps late in the series. All of the physical punishment finally caught up to the Islanders in game seven, and they managed a paltry 11 shots on goal, a Stanley Cup Playoffs record for futility in game sevens.

The Caps will need to keep using their size up front to wear down the opposition in the next round against the Rangers, and they’ll need to apply as much pressure as possible on the opposition’s blueline. Expect another physical series, and we’ll get one step closer to seeing if Alex Ovechkin can lead the new look Caps on to a Stanley Cup.

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