After losing their final regular season contest at the Nassau Coliseum last Saturday, in a game that represented their season in a nutshell, there were many who were concerned about the New York Islanders coming into D.C. to take on a relatively “hot” Washington Capitols team. The emotion and drama of Saturday night resembled that of a playoff game, and it was clear from the opening face-off that the players and coaches understood just what the night meant to the Long Island faithful.
To end up not only losing the game, but give away home ice in the first round in the process, definitely raised questions about what it all meant for Round 1. How will the team react? What does the loss of Travis Harmonic for Game 1 do to the Islander’s defense? Will the players be able to bounce back from losing a game that meant the world to them?
The answers to these questions was apparent early on in Game 1: Saturday night was a distant memory for the New York Islanders. Instead of seeing an emotionally drained team that was slow to get their legs under them, John Tavares and Co. reminded the hockey world just what the Islanders look like when they are at the top of their game, and took back the home-ice advantage with a 4-1 victory at the Verizon Center. The win also marked the first time since the 2003 post seasons that the Islander have won the first game of a playoff series.
Washington did their best to establish a physical tone from the get-go, spattering the first few minutes of the game with some punishing hits on the Islanders, with Ryan Strome in particular on the receiving end of a few nasty collisions. Yet that didn’t deter the Islanders from executing the gameplay that allows them to be successful: possession, possession, possession. The Islanders consistently controlled the pace of the game, allowing Washington few chances to breakout in odd-man advantages. The SOG don’t necessarily reflect the success the Islanders had in the Washington zone: the attempts for New York ended up at 27, whereas the Caps were not far behind at 25. However the quality of those attempts felt very, very different between the two teams.
For all of the positives the Islanders showed defensively, I would be remiss in not discussing the fact that the first-ranked Washington PP unit went 0/2 on the evening, in much part due to the extremely aggressive PK of the Islanders. Instead of the passive PK we have seen at times during this season, the Isles were forceful in ensuring that Alex Ovechkin was unable to set up shop on the left circle, the spot where of course he just so happened to have scored 25 goals from this season. With Ovechkin tied up, the rest of the Capitols PP unit was unable to generate much pressure on their own.
Credit must be given to the coaching staff as well: we have heard for the past few days that the most important thing the Islanders could do to slow down the Washington power play was stay out of the box: and with only 2 penalties assessed against the Isles, they accomplished that goal and then some.
The 2013 playoff run against the Penguins had seen an Islanders team come out completely overwhelmed and overmatched against the superior team; if you recall the Isles dropped Game 1 of that series 5-0. 2015’s playoff debut. Tonight’s performance was a completely opposite, in every which way shape and form. Even more encouraging was the performance of those Islanders who were thrust into their first playoff experience: Ryan Strome handled the physically of the Capitals by giving the Islanders a lead they would not relinquish with a goal (off a beautiful face-off win by John Tavares) early on in the 2nd period. The other 1/3rd of the Kid Line, Brock Nelson was not to be outdone in his first playoff action since Game 6 of the 13 playoffs, and added 2 more goals, including the empty-netter at 18:41 that officially sealed the win for the isles.
While the Islanders were certainly the better team this evening, that is not to say aren’t items that they will need to address Friday night in Game 2. While Washington failed to maintain a consistent attacking presence in the Islanders zone, there were multiple opportunities that on a different night, might have ended up in the net. The Isles will need to show they can shake off a few unfortunate bounces of the puck if things start going the Capitals way.
The defensive pairing of Thomas Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky did not play poorly, but it was clear that when those two saw ice time Washington had an advantage in size and physicality. And it wouldn’t feel right to finish an Islanders recap without stating that if Jaroslav Halak continues to handle the puck as often as he has been, the team will suffer for it. Islanders fans across the country surely felt chest pains when Halak horrendously misplayed a puck with about two minutes remaining in the 3rd, and without the heads up play from Visnovsky, could have made things very interesting in Washington.
But for now, the Islanders can take comfort in the fact that they have shown their resiliency once again, a trait that has been missing from Long Island for many years. The team was fast, controlled, and disciplined for all 60 minutes of action tonight. They may not be able to replicate their performance on Friday evening, but there is no question the importance of taking Game 1, and introducing a small measure of doubt into the minds of the Washington Capitols, is going to go a long way in this series.