The Islanders put up their best season in a decade while the Capitals shrugged off the pressure of a new coach and the weight of pundits questioning their system to produce a similarly eye-opening campaign. Each team’s slate has been basically wiped clean now that the playoffs have begun and the Isles struck the first blow in their opening-round series with a 4–1 victory in Washington. Brock Nelson led the way for the Isles with two goals, their first and an empty-netter at the finish, and Josh Bailey chipped in with a goal and an assist as the visitors kept Alex Ovechkin off the score sheet.
Here are three thoughts from the Islanders’ Game 1 win:
1. This series will be won or lost in the trenches.
The Islanders raced out to the top of the Eastern Conference early in the season mostly on the merit of their aggressive and opportunistic forecheck. Although the energy required by that strategy, and a few key injuries, might have sapped some of their strength for stretches after the All-Star break, coach Capuano obviously thought it was best to stick with the meat-and-potatoes style of hockey that got his team to Game 1 against the Capitals in the first place. Dump-and-chase was thus the order of the night in Game 1 in Washington, although perhaps leery of the counterattacking danger presented by Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Isles did so without resorting to the careening abandon that usually coincides with their best and worst hockey. Safe play or not, it worked. The Capitals often found themselves with little time or space once they corralled the puck in their zone, and even if they did make an on-target pass a player in a white sweater wasn’t far behind to deal out some physical consequences.
As a result, most of the first and second periods were played below both goal lines and on the boards in the neutral zone. The Islanders wouldn’t allow the Caps a clean breakout, and so Washington was also forced to throw the puck deep whenever it found a sliver of free ice. On the rare occasions when a Capital found himself in the clear the Isles always seemed to be closing in with an enveloping backcheck or trap. Robbed of any true free-flowing hockey and paltry results, the home crowd remained quiet, which was not a good sign for a Capitals team that could have used the possible extra boost in energy.
The Isles’ shutdown style resulted in their first goal with 6:06 left in the first period. A hasty neutral-zone pass from Backstrom found Marcus Johansson’s skates and the Islanders quickly grabbed the puck and transitioned to offense. Karl Alzner failed to close down Brock Nelson quickly as he entered the zone and Nelson’s snap shot from the top of the circle beat Holtby low on the short side. Pressure, gain puck possession, goal: That should be the Islanders’ M.O. for this entire series. The Capitals will have to learn to compete on the glass and in the corners, and to not back down as the Islanders continue to bang bodies in high-traffic areas of the ice. The only way to get Ovie and Co. in an offensive rhythm is to break the Islanders’ forecheck with some physicality of their own.
2. Or it will be won the goalie who can keep his focus.
Jaroslav Halak was a boon for the usually net-bereft Islanders this season and Braden Holtby was a workhorse for the Caps through 71 starts during the year. But each netminder came into this series with an asterisk above his mask and neither looked particularly solid during Game 1. Holtby failed to cover his near-side post on Nelson’s opener, perhaps thinking that Karl Alzner would close the gap between him and the oncoming forward a little sooner. He then made the opposite mistake on Ryan Strome’s go-ahead tally 3:50 into the second period. After John Tavares won a clean face-off from Michael Latta, Strome glided across the top of the left circle before wristing a shot over Holtby’s right shoulder. At the moment of release, Holtby was cheating to his left, expecting Strome to continue skating into the slot. But the Capitals pay Holtby to block shots in the present, not predict the future, and he got caught thinking one move ahead on both of New York’s first two goals.
In the other net, Halak had a shaky start of his own. The lack of action at his end of the ice may have had something to do with it, as we all know what can happen when goalies are left alone with their own thoughts. (See Halak's last-second blooper reel moment against the Flyers in the final week of the regular season.) The Caps registered only three shots through the game’s first 10 minutes and so perhaps Halak was still getting into the swing of things when he flubbed the handle on a dump-in with less than a minute left in the first. The errant pass went to a hard-charging Brooks Laich, who passed to Marcus Johansson at the top of the circle. Halak, still not set after his scramble to get back to the net, was easily beaten as the Caps tied the score at 1–1. Halak grew stronger as the game progressed, making some clutch stops with bodies battling around him in the crease and a nifty yet casual glove save on Ovechkin as he barreled down the left wing. No team can go very far in the playoffs if it has to constantly worry about its man between the pipes, though, and so the Islanders and Capitals will have to hope Halak and Holtby respectively buck the trend of giving up easy goals at inopportune moments.
3. Alex Ovechkin must start leading by example.
Ovechkin has come a long way from the player who went -35 last season and whose best-known playoff moment might turn out to be this series. Even so, the danger remains that the Capitals’ captain can disappear for a period or two or even an entire game, which was more or less what happened tonight. It wasn’t just that Ovie was kept off the score sheet. The Isles collapsed on him even more than they did on the rest of Washington’s threats and they did a nice job of not letting him get open looks. But Ovechkin never quite tried to alter his approach to finding areas from which to shoot and instead went back, time and again, to trailing the play and hoping for a puck in the slot or waiting for a stretch pass down the left side. One of his best assets is his combination of pace and strength, and it would go a long way toward jump-starting Washington’s offense if he circled back for the puck on regroups to collect it and start the attack into the offensive zone. The Capitals won’t win this series if the puck doesn’t find their best player when they need it to, and Ovechkin must be more proactive in making that happen.
On the flip side, he might also need to keep his emotions in check. Midway through the second period, as the Islanders continued to shut down the Capitals’ offense, Ovechkin took a reckless run at an Islanders defenseman and then threw down Lubomir Visnovsky after the play was blown dead. In the third, still goal-less and his team trailing, he dumped Isles defenseman Johnny Boychuk into the boards from an awkward angle. Ovechkin’s passion can fire up his team, there’s no doubt about that. But the Capitals need him on the ice, not in the box, and smart play often says a lot more than big hits. The Capitals will be looking for revenge in Game 2, but it would serve Ovechkin well to focus on doing what he does best, which is putting the puck in the net rather than taking frustration out on his opponents.