December 17, 2017

Caps-Islanders Round 1 Preview: Once more against Halak

The Washington Capitals sit 16 wins away from claiming their first Stanley Cup, four of which must come against the New York Islanders. Here’s a breakdown of their first round matchup.

Islanders offense vs. Caps defense

Islanders: 2.99 goals per game (4th), 175 5-on-5 goals (4th), 33.8 shots per game (2nd), .592 win percentage when scoring first (25th), .545 win percentage when trailing first (1st)

Caps: 2.43 goals against per game (7th), 140 5-on-5 goals against (12th), 28.9 shots allowed per game (11th)

The main weapon on the Islanders is John Tavares, the 24-year-old superstar who finished second in the NHL in points this season. The offense hinges on him, but not in the same way the Caps’ offense hinges on Alex Ovechkin. The dynamic center is just as adept at setting up goals as he is at scoring them and leads the team both in goals (38) and assists (48). For much of his career, the Islanders have relied far too much on Tavares to carry their offense but that is no longer the case. Kyle Okposo is second on the team in points despite missing 22 games with a detached retina and provides a major threat on the Islanders’ second line. They also have had young talent step up with Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee all enjoying breakout seasons.

New York is very fast and utilizes their speed on the rush and the forecheck. They will try to force mistakes from the Caps as they breakout of the defensive zone so the defense will have to keep their heads up and the forwards will have to keep the passing lanes open. The Islanders do not get their defensemen too involved in the offense as none of their blue liners have hit 40 points this season. Their attack revolves more around capitalizing on other teams’ mistakes than it does on sustained zone time.

One thing to keep in mind, the Islanders are never out of it. They lead the league in win percentage when conceding the first goal. The Caps should never take any lead for granted in this series.

Islanders defense vs. Caps offense

Islanders: 2.73 goals against per game (23rd), 162 5-on-5 goals against (23rd), 28.3 shots allowed per game (7th)

Caps: 2.89 goals per game (6th), 151 5-on-5 goals (16th), 29.5 shots per game (20th), .860 win percentage when scoring first (1st), .205 win percentage when trailing first (25th)

Just as the Caps brought in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to shore up their defense, the Islanders also brought in outside help prior to the season. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have been major assets for this team despite their struggles on defense. This is not a team that wins a lot of 1-0, 2-1 games.

In years past, the Caps have struggled to score as defenses have committed to shutting down Ovechkin. If the regular season is any indication, that may prove difficult for the Islanders who allowed four goals and an assist to the Great 8 in four games.

Goalies

Jaroslav Halak: 38-17-4, 2.43 GAA, .914 save percentage, 6 shutouts

Braden Holtby: 41-20-10, 2.22 GAA, .923 save percentage, 9 shutouts

It may seem weird to think the Caps have an advantage in net given their history with Halak, but that is clearly the case this season. Halak has not played like the same goalie who single-handedly pulled Montreal to an upset victory over the Caps in 2010. Overall, he has not been bad, but he has been far from unbeatable. The biggest question in this series — and beyond should the Caps advance — will be whether Holtby will run out of gas. His 73 games played are the most among all NHL goalies and seven more than the  closest playoff starter, Carey Price. Barring any kind of meltdown from Holtby, however, the Caps look like they have a clear advantage between the pipes.

Special Teams

Islanders: 18.7 power play percentage (16th), 78.0 penalty kill percentage (26th)

Caps: 25.3 power play percentage (1st), 81.2 penalty kill percentage (14th)

Penalties become scarce in the playoffs, but one major point of emphasis this series will be the Islanders’ discipline. The Caps boast the best power play in the league and the Islanders have one of the worst kills.  This likely will not be a large factor in this series, but if it is, it will be in favor of the Caps.

Coaches

Barry Trotz was the best coach available in the offseason and he has been a breath of fresh air in Washington since he was hired, especially in the wake of the Adam Oates era. In his first season he has answered every question about if he could be successful with the Caps but one: can he win in the playoffs? In the seven seasons he led Nashville to the playoffs, he reached the second round only twice and failed to advance further. Jack Capuano is in his fifth season as the Islanders’ head coach. They have made the playoffs only once during his tenure, but gave the Pittsburgh Penguins one heck of a scare winning twice despite being the eighth seed. He will not be afraid to experiment with his lineup. With neither coach having any major playoff success, this matchup comes down to experience vs. familiarity. Trotz has 16 seasons as an NHL head coach under his belt, but only one with the Caps. Capuano has only five, but he developed these players and helped build this team.

The Caps will lose if…

…they struggle offensively. Both offenses are comparable, but the Caps have the clear advantage both in terms of defense and goaltending. Add in the fact that defenseman Travis Hamonic is out indefinitely and the Islanders look like they may be in trouble. Even if they were 100 percent healthy, this is not a defense with a shutdown pair like the Rangers boast in Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi that can frustrate Ovechkin. Even if they somehow find a way to, they still have to deal with Backstrom on the second line. Halak is a wild card. He needs to elevate his game much like he did in the 2010 as a Canadien if the Islanders hope to win.

The Caps will win if…

…the defense can shutdown John Tavares. With all due respect to all the offensive weapons listed above, this is still Tavares’ team. He is a superstar player capable of taking over a series on his own. The Islanders are an offensive team, they are not strong enough defensively to keep up with the Caps if their best player can’t get on the score sheet. As the Caps struggled in recent years when Ovechkin struggled offensively, so will the Islanders struggle if the defense can stifle Tavares.

Prediction

Caps win in six. Don’t overlook the importance of home ice in this series as the home team won all four meetings between the Caps and Islanders this season. Tavares and the Islanders are good enough to steal at least one win plus Game 3 is a day game and we know how much the Caps struggle in those. Still, this is a bad matchup for the Islanders because they don’t have the defense to stop a player like Ovechkin. They also have not played well down the stretch of the regular season, going only 4-7-3 in their final 14 games. This is a series the Caps should win.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

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